The Dangers of Certainty

The New York Times forum The Stone recently ran a moving piece about the evil things people can do when they are certain they are right. In the essay, philosopher Simon Critchley reflects on an episode of The Ascent of Man, in which presenter Jacob Bronowski delivers a haunting critique of dogma while standing in a pond at Auschwitz. Critchley writes this about Bronowski’s speech:

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.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality…

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible.

The monologue is worth watching, and the essay worth reading.

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