Monstrous Certainty

Here are some thoughts about the extreme danger of certainty, the arrogance of absolutism, and the need for intellectual humility. The reference to “The Principle of Uncertainty” is a reference to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which has had a profound impact on our concept of reality: that we change things when we observe them, that we seem to find what we expect to find and frequently do not even see the unexpected, that many perceived boundary lines are instead boundary blurs, that there’s a fuzz rather than a clear demarcation between what we know and what we don’t know, that we live in a probabilistic world. In fact, the role random chance plays in our lives makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Some of those people will turn to extreme behaviors to quiet their fear. All these ideas were generated by observation of the behavior of sub-atomic particles in the 1930s. Scientist Jacob Bronkowski on keepin’ it real:

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 our way forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of 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.”

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

–from the “Knowledge or Certainty” episode of the 1973 BBC series The Ascent of Man

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, He has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and has been a top-rated broadcaster.