The Power of Uncertainty

I KNEW – OK, I BELIEVED that he was correct. How else does one blow up churches, perhaps with innocent black girls inside?

dice1The guy from Buffalo, Jaquandor, linked to this New York Times article, The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz by Simon Critchley. You should just read it. He describes his love of the 1973 BBC 13-part documentary series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski.

In only one episode did the good doctor deviate from what Critchley called a “relentlessly optimistic” account. The 11th episode, “Knowledge or Certainty,” was different, and explaining it further would only diminish it. But here is a relevant quote:

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.”

The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

Someone asked: “But does certainty always lead to Auschwitz?” Well, of course not, but as Jaquandor noted: “But that’s not the claim that is made. It’s the assumption of the absolute rightness of our views that can lead to dangers.”

And I KNEW – OK, I BELIEVED that he was correct. How else does one blow up churches, perhaps with innocent black girls inside? Or shoot a doctor who performs abortions, inside a church? Or commit terrible atrocities against “the other”? Or blow oneself up in a train station? Or wage unwinnable wars against “them”? It seems to me that one would have to be quite certain of the rightness of his or her action.

I’ve said, frequently, that often I don’t know. Would others feel the same before acting upon their convictions in such brutal fashions.
The younger of my sisters linked to 10 painfully obvious truths everyone forgets too soon. Not totally sure of #2 and #4, but it’s a useful list.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Uncertainty”

  1. On the “obvious truths” list: As I get older, I reject #2 more and more strenuously. Sometimes I think that this single belief is the root of the lion’s share of our societal ills, because it implies (a) that you can totally get yourself out of any situation by virtue of your own hard work, and (b) that if you’re in a sticky spot, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough or you worked hard at the wrong thing. I think that we like to think we have a lot more control than we actually do.

  2. I don’t really take issue with anything on the list. I think much of it is how you interpret the words. I didn’t make the connection between Janquandor’s interpretation of #2 and the way I read it. So, the list speaks to people in different ways….depending on worldview, mindset and perspective. Interesting.

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