On the Dangers of Certainty and the Importance of Tolerance

One of the best op-eds I have ever read is by Simon Critchley, recently published in The New York Times under the title “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.” It’s an absolute must-read:

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.

Before you read the rest, watch this powerful video filmed at the Auschwitz Concetration Camp, in which Dr. Bronowski reflects on the millions of lives extinguished at that location:

Dr.Bronowski was the man who developed the TV show The Ascent of Man, which aired on BBC in the 1970s. Continuing,

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

This kind of philosophy has been ingrained in me from the youngest age. Be a skeptic. Question assumptions. Do not take anything as an absolute truth.

An incredible, must-read piece. I am going to try to find old videos of The Ascent of Man and watch them in my spare time.

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