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Bronowski v Devine: the dangers of certainty - In the Shadow of Leaves
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Bronowski v Devine: the dangers of certainty
The Sydney Morning Herald runs some opinion columns by 'shock-jock' types of columnists that deliberately set out to bait the type of "liberal" you might expect to find reading that paper. One of them is called Miranda Devine (great name, like Athena Starwoman, Slim Pickens, &c.). In a recent one (War-wary will not weary them, SMH 2/12/2003) praised statesmen of great "moral purity" (the type that really frighten me).

Here is one wonderful explanation of the reasons I feel that way.
Jacob Bronowski
A part of "Knowledge or Certainty", episode 11 from the 1973 BBC series "The Ascent of Man" (shown on PBS in the USA), 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."

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."

Unfortunately, as far as I can make out, the BBC isn't selling this series except to educational institutions. There is a book of it available, mostly second-hand.

Other sites with parts of this quotation.

Related: www.spectacle.org/695/intro.html (Auschwitz Alphabet)
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