Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Knowledge or Certainty

Back when EoR was a Very Small Donkey (he's now Old, Grey, Irascible and rather Tatty), the BBC produced a 13 part documentary series of hour long programs on Science (and can anyone imagine that sort of thing happening today, when reality TV and pseudo-factual programs about mediums and ghosts are the order of the day?). The Ascent of Man, presented by Dr Jacob Bronowski, was a landmark in television. It has now been released on DVD (at least in the UK and Australia). Go out and buy it. Watch it. Show it to your friends. Show it in schools (while EoR saw the series on television, he also fondly remembers episodes being shown at school). You will not be disappointed. Not only is this about Science, but it's also exciting stuff about Science, and a firm conviction that Science is a positive force. Dr Bronowski is one of EoR's personal heroes (a man who believes in Science, and who wrote books about William Blake, is a man after EoR's own heart). In an obituary, Sean Day-Lewis wrote
His great success as a broadcaster partly stemmed from his determination not to underrate the audience.

One of the programs is entitled "Knowledge or Certainty". In Dr Bronowski's view, science (which he stresses as a very human activity) deals with knowledge. Knowledge is uncertain. Science constantly progresses, but knowledge is never complete. It is an expanding field, albeit with fuzzy edges, but it is never finished. Certainty, on the other hand, is the realm of dogma. Of the unchanging worldview where all things are known absolutely and there is no room or possibility of further progress. Dr Bronowski is a firm supporter of Science.
But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge. There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.

Whilst there is a clear relation to the views of alternatistas today (especially homeopaths with their constant clamouring ululations against any and all studies that show no effect above placebo from their nostrums) and fundamentalism of all sorts (Christian, Moslem, political, racial), for Dr Bronowski (a Jew originally from Poland) the ultimate application of Certainty was the Nazi regime.
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.

Bronowski's essays (for so he termed the progams) are full of the optimistic belief that science has steadily pushed back the dark ages and the erroneous beliefs in magic and forces such as phlogiston. Imperfect though it may be, science has become the standard way of understanding the world. Sadly, these days, those forces of darkness and mumbo jumbo are advancing again, im passim subsuming the terms and language of Science (but not the methodology or the rigour) and EoR wonders what Dr Bronowski would make of this revolt against science. He suspects Dr Bronowski would be appalled.

I can do no better than to quote the final comments of "Knowledge or Certainty". Unfortunately, the written word cannot convey the passion and the personal engagement of Dr Bronowski as he steps, unscripted, into a pond of water at Auschwitz and scoops up a handful of muddy water.
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts - obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It is said that science will dehumanise 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 some 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 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'.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. 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.

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