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Heisenberg’s Epistemology

22 September 2008

Pardon the pointy-headed title, but “Heisenberg’s framework for deciding what constitutes legitimate knowledge” wouldn’t fit in the box.


I’m reading Postman and Weingartner’s 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  If you are interested in a dissenting, out-of-the-mainstream view of the educational enterprise, and if you like muscular, unapologetic, ruthlessly candid writing, this is a book for you.

The authors quote Heisenberg, the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who gave us the scientific analog of postmodernism known as the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”  In quantum mechanics, that principle states that measuring a particle’s position very precisely makes its momentum uncertain, and measuring its momentum precisely makes its position uncertain.  We’ve since generalized the principle to say something like, “there’s no way to measure something without distorting it.”  Stick a propeller into a stream to measure the water velocity, and you change the very thing you’re trying to measure.

Pointy-headed, indeed.  But there’s a corollary that ought to impress us when it comes to “making disciples.”  

Postman and Weingartner quote Heisenberg as having said, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our methods of questioning.”  You teachers know this:  what you learn from testing children at school is not what they know, but rather how well they are able to respond to the questions you asked them.  In many – dare I say all? – cases, those are two different things.

Some years ago, Randy Frazee published an instrument titled, The Christian Life Profile Assessment Tool Workbook: Discovering the Quality of Your Relationships with God and Others in 30 Key Areas.  The tool is supposed to serve as a means of measuring one’s advancement in discipleship to Jesus.  It consists of 120 questions that address 30 “core competencies.”

Sound familiar?  If you’re an educator, you have been subjected to in-service training and seminars and workshops ad nauseum that are supposed to help you strengthen your “core competencies,” which are the skills you’re supposed to have as a professional in order to do your job well – by which we mean, usually, generate product that can be measured.  Thus my worth as a university professor is measured in statistical terms:  how many contact hours I have with students, how much external funding I have been awarded, how many journal articles I have published.  Later this week I will submit a dossier for promotion that is structured around that very premise; not surprisingly, the dossier is dominated by lists of “deliverables.”

In the modern way of looking at life and work and family and religion, the #1 mantra is, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  The result of those is nearly always an accepted protocol for measuring a phenomenon so that we can make management decisions about how to alter that phenomenon.  Postman and Weingartner are deeply concerned about the end result of that way of thinking about education; I am deeply concerned about the end result of that way of thinking about discipleship to Jesus.


I must admit to being a bit worried about our Sunday evening Bible study, which for the moment I am “facilitating.”  (I hate that word, but I hate it less than the word “leading.”  Just so.)  What has me spooked is that even though some in our group have been studying together for years and years, and I know them well enough to know that they’re quite comfortable with an unstructured discussion format, I don’t have a clue about the others or what they’re thinking.  To make matters worse, four in the group are current or former teachers in the public school system, with its regimented approach, its aggressive testing program, and its highly structured syllabus; another worked for several years as a technology-support person in a public school.  The modern educational system is just part of the furniture of the group’s collective life, and that intimidates me.

Needless to say, perhaps, I have not developed a syllabus for our Bible study, and it’s not because I’m lazy.  I just don’t subscribe to the modernist view of discipleship, of which Frazee’s instrument is breathtakingly paradigmatic.  But I confess that I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Who is going to ask it first:  “Brent, where are we going with this?”  There’s a tacit question lying underneath the surface, too:  “And when are we going to get there so we can move on to our next topic?”

I know what my answers will be, but I’m not sure they’ll be persuasive.  We’re just trying to become more like Jesus, whatever that means; and I don’t know that we ever will exhaust the “topic” we’re considering.  (We’re not even considering a topic per se, so the second question doesn’t even make sense.)


Thanks to BB, by the way, for throwing me a little bone of encouragement to stay the course.  He understands what I’m doing, or trying to do, anyway.

What I’m trying to do is best captured by letting Postman and Weingartner speak on my behalf:  “Focusing on the asking of questions leads directly to the probing of relationships among ‘subjects,’ which, in turn, permits the development of a synoptic and frequently original view of knowledge instead of the traditional segmented view” (emphasis mine).  The matter of discipleship to Jesus is a matter of the whole self as a person, which includes both body and spirit, unified by the human soul.  We learn to live like Jesus by living with him, not by studying a structured syllabus of precepts that we turn around and recite to prove how well we’ve learned them.  Discipleship is not discipleship if it is mere assent to generally known propositions; it is a property of the person, expressed in community, and as such it looks unique, fresh, and original in each individual.  

Incidentally, the way we’ll learn discipleship is just the way Jesus taught it:  by stories, parables, and “walking,” and above all, by what P&W call “divergent questions,” questions that inevitably and by design lead to a mushroom of additional questions.  Everyone who tried to boil the matter down to law, tradition, and principles – answers, tidy and neat – ended up missing it by a mile.  Think about it, and see if it’s not the case.

Postman and Weingartner paraphrase Heisenberg:  “We have to remember that what we observe children doing in schools is not what they are, but children exposed to us by our methods of teaching.”  Amen to that.


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