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Gaianne - it was a big mistake to seek certainty - though so many had done so before. Descartes thought he had cracked it with his cogito, many thought he had for a long time. Nietzsche took it apart in a beautiful piece of philosophical analysis in Beyond Good and Evil, section 16:

There are always still the harmless observers of themselves who believe that there are "immediate certainties," for example, "I think," or like Schopenhauer's superstition, "I will," just as if perception was able to seize upon its object pure and naked, as "the thing in itself," and as if there was no falsification either on the part of the subject or on the part of the object.*

The fact is that "immediate certainty," together with "absolute cognition" and "thing in itself," contains within itself a contradictio in ajecto [contradiction in terms]. I'll repeat it a hundred times: people should finally free themselves of the seduction of words! Let folk believe that knowing is knowing all of something. The philosopher must say to himself, "When I dismantle the process which is expressed in the sentence `I think,' I come upon a series of daring assertions whose grounding is difficult, perhaps impossible, for example, that I am the one who thinks, that there must be some general something that thinks, that thinking is an action and effect of a being which is to be thought of as a cause, that there is an `I', and finally that it is already established what we mean by thinking--that I know what thinking is. For if I had not yet decided these questions in myself, how could I assess that what just happened might not perhaps be `willing' or `feeling'?"

It's sufficient to point out that this "I think" presupposes that I compare my immediate condition with other conditions which I know in myself in order to establish what it is. Because of this referring back to other forms of "knowing," it certainly does not have any immediate "certainty" for me. --Instead with this "immediate certainty," which people may believe in the case under discussion, the philosopher encounters such a series of metaphysical questions, really essential questions of intellectual knowledge, "Where do I acquire the idea of thinking? Why do I believe in cause and effect? What gives me the right to speak of an `I,' and indeed of an `I' as a cause, finally even of an `I' as the cause of thinking?"

Anyone who dares to answer those metaphysical questions right away with an appeal to some kind of intuitive cognition, as does the man who says "I think and know that at least this is true, real, and certain"--such a person nowadays will be met by a philosopher with a smile and two question marks. "My dear sir," the philosopher will perhaps give him to understand, "it is unlikely that you are not mistaken but why such absolute truth?"--


I think you're quite wrong to describe scientists who go on working and not concerning themselves with the foundations of science/maths/logic as "cowards". It's not as though science depends for its validity only on those foundations; there is a long history of success in application to the real world. There is also the long history of improving on earlier basic theories - hence current foundational problems might well be resolved later too.

There's a useful summary of Bronowski's enlightened views on this in a study guide for  Bronowski's excellent "Knowledge or Certainty", a programme in his series "The Ascent of Man" for the BBC in 1973. In the programme he argues that the desire of certainty or absolute knowledge is not only misguided but dangerous. The desire for it can lead to intolerance and the imposition of one's supposed certainties - as with some religions, or dogmatic racial theories as with the Nazis:

 The defence of science which Bronowski mounts depends on the "uncertainty principle," or "indeterminacy" or--as he prefers--"the principle of tolerance." His insistence that there is no absolute truth, not even in science, descends from the same line of reasoning as Voltaire's insistence on the limits of knowledge. Both argue that the logical result of human limitations should be tolerance.

The Science

You do not have to understand modern atomic physics to follow his argument, but it helps. He begins the film by focussing a number of devices on the face of an unnamed elderly man to see how much detail each can produce. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that all perception, including that provided by scientific investigation, is necessarily imperfect, limited.

It is crucial to understand that he is not saying that there is no such thing as knowledge, or that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes that we can be very precise about what we can and cannot know through scientific means. That in itself is important knowledge. But all knowledge is limited, never absolute. Philosophers and other humanists have often seized on uncertainty theory and quantum physics to argue for skepticism, and tried to use it to deny all validity to science. Why this is unjustified in most scientists' opinion is beyond the scope of these modest notes, but it is important to keep in mind that Bronowski does believe in scientific knowledge: he simply denies that it is complete or perfect.

His use of the word "tolerance" may be unfamiliar to you if you have not studied engineering. Parts are often manufactured to a certain degree of tolerance in the sense that a bolt may measure .25 centimeters give or take 15 millimeters. The "give or take" part is the "tolerance." It is not possible to make anything to perfect dimensions--not just because of human imperfection, but because of uncertainties built into the very nature of matter. Bronowski is punning on this meaning of "tolerance" to connect it with the more common use of the term to express open-mindedness. Note how his analysis of science emphasizes that it progresses through questioning and argumentation, refusal to accept any finding as the last word. For him, science which becomes dogma is not science.

He rejects the term "uncertainty" because we are certain about what we cannot know in subatomic physics, and can even measure precisely the "tolerance" within which our knowledge is bounded.


He ends, movingly, at Auschwitz, saying that it is not scientists who turn people into numbers, but dogmatists like the Nazis, who killed many of his relatives. He walks into a pool (apparently unscripted and to surprise of film crew) where some of their ashes may have been dumped. He says we must give up the craving for absolute knowledge - which can lead to killing people. We must move forward despite uncertainty/tolerance - science is always tentative (but not just ignorance) and therefore not dogmatic.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Wed Jan 2nd, 2008 at 11:19:53 AM EST

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