Friday, August 29, 2014

Simon Critchley


Simon Critchley wrote in “The Dangers of Certainty: a Lesson from Auschwitz,”* that “The more we know, the less certain we are.” His article reviews a BBC documentary presented in 1973 featuring Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician.

The article contains words to live by, such as:

… the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. 

Insisting on certainty … leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken.

This article was so meaningful to me that I forwarded the link to my friends. I agree with Dr. Bronowski, so why do I have questions?


Is Dr. Bronowski saying that the more educated we become the less likely we are to accept absolutes? If he’s saying that we live in a world, not of black and whites, but of grays, does this mean there are no black and whites?

The more we know about motives, background, influences, that sort of thing, we come to realize that attributes don’t arise in isolation. We are able to understand if not empathize with the money grubbing adult who went hungry as a youngster; the child abuser who was abused; the drug pusher whose parents gave him drugs, etc.


In our lack of certainty, we hesitant to put labels on people. For instance, we don’t call a person a liar when he tells a lie. Rather, we say he’s a person who told a lie. If he wrecks a home, he’s not a home-wrecker, but a person who wrecked a home. If he cheats on a test, he’s not a cheater. You get the idea. Nobody is all good or all bad. The deeds we perform may be black or white, but our totality is gray.

On the white end of the spectrum are adjectives such as honest, faithful, and loving. We’re more generous about applying these to people as well as deeds, and we find that by doing so, we dilute their definitions.


Our uncertainty leads us to temper, if not withhold, judgment of others, which can only improve our relationships. But at risk are the big concepts, such as freedom, truth, and justice. If we concede that there exists my freedom, your justice, our truth, there will be no absolutes. These notions will fall from the stratosphere to become pocket companions to each of us.


To take uncertainty to the extreme, how can we believe in God? Is it fair to say the concept of God becomes more and more alien to us as we accept grays and the notion that verities exist within us rather than external to us?

There is a reminder that absolutes exist, and the most obvious one is death. Irrespective of the heart, mind, or soul of man, it exists, and it doesn’t bend or modify because of influences or behavior. It is essentially the same for every human, animal, and vegetation. As ironic as it may sound, does death point to certainty? To God?

*The New York Times, February 2014

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