Although it’s a basic element in modern physics, many people today have a problem with uncertainty. Some say uncertainty is keeping businesses from moving forward; others claim there are certain Truths that stand as a bulwark against an alleged “moral relativism.”
In contrast to such paeans to certainty, The New York Times recently posted an interesting piece: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.” Drawing on lessons from an old BBC television series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by a Dr. Jacob Bronowski, Simon Critchley notes the distinction made in the episode “Knowledge and Certainty”:
He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.
Critchley notes that a result of this inevitably imperfect information is that we assume a responsibility for our interpretation of that information. Knowledge isn’t based on some reality existing “out there” – it is based on our looking at the information and drawing our own – hopefully reasonable – conclusions. This personal dimension means that there is a moral aspect to knowledge:
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
As Critchley notes, this uncertainty is integral to our remaining both moral and human. Evil occurs when we think we have a god-like certainty that we know The Truth and others don’t:
The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.
When you consider the many evil things individuals and groups have done to other individuals and groups – or the the Earth itself – at one time or another, you will inevitably find an element of inflexible certainty in their beliefs. From the Crusades to Auschwitz to 9/11 – they all have their roots in the delusional but unshakeable certainty of their perpetrators that they were acting on the side of Good.
Such certainty can be seductive in an uncertain, chaotic world like ours. But for the sake of our sanity and our souls, we should be very wary of the purveyors of such certainties.