Thursday, 16 June 2005

Bronowski's Best Available Again! (+ Ken Clark's)

Sorry that this is long, but I'm hoping to have this extract of Bronowski in so many places around the net that many people may see it, and some think about it.

The dangerousness of people who are certain of themselves is a recurrent theme we can see in history. Events have recently resonated with a couple of memories, plus there has been some recent good news (see at the end). So here are two related treatments of it, edited from old entries.

The Sydney Morning Herald runs some opinion columns by columnists that deliberately set out to bait their mostly "liberal" readership. One of them is called Miranda Devine (great name, like Athena Starwoman, Slim Pickens, Rip Torn &c.). In a column in my most difficult year ( War-wary will not weary them, SMH 12th February, 2003) she praised statesmen of great "moral purity". The type that really frighten me. Here is one strong and clear explanation of some reasons I feel that way:

Extract of "Knowledge or Certainty", episode 11 from the 1973 BBC series The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (shown on PBS in the USA), as transcribed by Evan Hunt:
"The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science -- or outside of it -- we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense -- science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance.

But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge -- all information between human beings -- can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance -- and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.

The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality -- this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

Other sites with parts of this extract:;;

[Exciting news, after many years, when the BBC would only sell the series in the UK to educational bodies, and it could be bought at a very high price on VHS in the USA only, they wouldn't ship elsewhere, now The Ascent of Man (USA) and Civilization (USA) are out in DVD box sets! If we all keep our extremities crossed, perhaps "O!, What a Lovely War will make it to DVD too. (Start your wish-list ... ) The books of both series are available second-hand reasonably regularly.]

and a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001 which also refer to this:
The Danger of Knowing for Sure
A special joint edition of
The Millenium Project and Quintessence of the Loon
September 12, 2001 by Peter Bowditch
... Bronowski was making a distinction between science and non-science - between knowing something with confidence and knowing something with certainty. The Nazis knew with certainty that they were right. Science, and its handmaiden skepticism, is based on the principle that knowledge is testable and that ideas and beliefs can be rejected and replaced if they can be demonstrated to be wrong or outdated. It is a process of continuous learning. Yes, science can have bad outcomes, but those bad things can be challenged and changed if necessary. When ideas cannot be challenged then learning, improvement and the correction of mistakes are impossible. There is no way back ...

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Another aspect of the 'Knowlege & Certainty' point. In late January 2003, a piece by billionaire financier George Soros, was published, first in the New Statesman. [You may be able to find other sources.] He wrote that the Nazis and Russian communists had one thing in common: "a belief that they were in the possession of the ultimate truth" - and that America too now shared this fatal flaw.

But of course, this is also true of the Taliban, the Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis and its other incarnations, as well as current fundamentalist Christian groups, other fundamentalist religious groups (e.g. Hindus & Sikhs have been massacring each other in the Indian subcontinent for some decades, with politicians whipping up religious groups as cynically for their own benefit as in any 'christian' society), the aforementioned political movements, and even the economic hardliners who are willing to "break a few eggs to make an omelette".

Consider also the philosophy discussed by EM Forster in his essay "What I Believe" or "Two Cheers for Democracy", published in 1938.

To me probably the most important religious principle - of which 'love thy neighbour as thyself' is a version - is "Do as you would be done by". This has to apply to the non-human world as well, which is often not appreciated.

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