Friday, April 6, 2012

Knowledge or Certainty

This is an episode from a documentary series, The Ascent of Man, first broadcast in 1973 on the BBC. Some of you may remember it. It featured the late physicist and writer Jacob Bronowski giving a "personal view" of the history and nature of science. Remarkably, most of his monologue was unscripted.
They certainly don't make teevee documentaries like they used to. While feature film documentaries are as fine as ever, I doubt that there would be any place on the thousand plus channels of cable teevee for anything this thoughtful or this leisurely paced. The production here is so remarkably artful in the photography and the editing, and skillfully timed to integrate imagery and lecture so very precisely and beautifully.

I present one very crucial episode from the series in its entirety. It addresses very skillfully and very effectively what I think is the worst and most destructive of all human passions, the "itch" for certainty as opposed to the quest for knowledge. Ours is a very polarized and contentious age where even a blog post about wildflowers will get a comment thread full of shouting and abuse, where even people who are on the same side of an issue shout at each other. We all want to settle these arguments, preferably our way. We want unassailable certainty so as to silence any contrary point of view. God is Real! There is no God! Both of those opposite assertions have one big thing in common, neither position can be proven beyond all doubt. We could take any number of issues and look at each warring faction and come to the same conclusion. Dr. Bronowski here presents to us in great detail the case that the universe guarantees no such certainty about anything, and that doubt is something that all of us must learn to live with no matter what we believe or don't believe.

This may seem inappropriate for this most solemn (and therefore contentious) of all Christian holy days, and yet what this is really about is something that the larger part of the Gospel talks about, not the nature of God or salvation, but how we treat other people; that's ultimately Bronowski's point here. The Gospel is mostly about how we are supposed to treat other people, not just our families, not just our friends, not just our fellow believers, but everyone, especially those who differ from us, who are opposite from us, who hate us.

I saw this series as a boy, and I remember watching this episode vividly. For the teenaged me living in Texas dominated by a fundamentalist majority and a large atheist minority, and where all the politics was different grades of right wing, and where radio crackled with the verbal fist fights between Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Rev. Criswell, this was like a drink of cold water in a hot desert. It had quite an effect on me and eventually directed me toward writers and thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Avishai Margalit among many others. All of those writers take a decidedly anti-doctrinal and anti-ideological view of the world, and so do I. A decent society is to be preferred over a perfect society.

If I was to describe myself today, it would be as a religious agnostic. If that sounds like a cop out, then so be it. I take a similar agnostic view in politics. I'm more interested in what works to further the ends of human freedom, dignity, welfare, and happiness than I am invested in any particular ideology. No, this is not some Washington Post call for "bipartisanship" nonsense that sees the political struggles of today as but petty squabbles. The political struggles are real, and the passions run high because the stakes are high. Our situation today is a contest between democracy and oligarchy, between the liberal vision described by Dr. Bronowski above, and those who would make the world quick march to the drumbeat of theocracy or ideology of any sort. I do take a stand in those struggles and claim no bipartisanship.

But even that can turn into an ideology or a doctrine. Hannah Arendt compares ideology, all of it, to the myth of Procrustes where the bandit forced travelers to lie on his bed. If they did not fit perfectly, he edited them with an axe. So Arendt argues is ideology like Procrustes and his bed, an attempt to remake a complex, conflicted, living world in the image of an abstraction. It cannot be done without fatal injury.

Please try to watch part of this documentary before commenting.

1 comment:

June Butler said...

I remember the series with Bronowski. Indeed, they don't make shows like that any more.