Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Virtues of Uncertainty

The Virtues of Uncertainty

There are many things that I remember from my teenage years, because they have inspired and influenced me a lot...

I remember watching the last episode of the documentary series, The Ascent of Man, on local TV, perhaps when I was seventeen. This marvellous show was narrated by the late scientist Dr Jacob Bronowski, who also wrote the book based on the series. It was a very educational and inspiring series about the rise of mankind, civilization and knowledge.

In the final episode, entitled "Knowledge and Certainty", I recall this very touching scene which showed Dr Bronowski, a Jew himself, standing ankle-deep in a dark muddy pond at Auschwitz. Here's a transcription of what he said during that scene, which I managed to find from the Net (the marvels of Google!):
It is said that science will dehumanize 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 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.
After so long, I still remember that scene; it got etched in my mind because it fortified my belief that certainty has to be treated with great caution, always. Certainty is the mother of all dogmas.

Hitler believed that the elimination of the Jews were the Final Solution to many of the ills of Europe. So he acted based on the absolutely certainty of this belief. His beliefs were not based on any misguided religious dogma, but were "intellectual" in nature--or at least Hitler himself believed so. He saw himself as an "intellectual" trying to find a solution to the many problems that had plagued his homeland. One can trace the very interesting development of his demented thoughts in his autobiographical book Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

I get very worried whenever people take a lot of pride and certainty in their intelligence; especially when they start labelling other people who don't see things their way as "stupid". An ignorant person can also possess the same kind of certainty too. Certainty is not a measure of correctness. This feeling of certainty which often makes us feel so bold inside, can be very very misleading.

I've learnt to be perfectly comfortable with uncertainty. To me, we can never be hundred percent certain of anything. We can only judge things with the imperfect knowledge we have at hand and then we act based on certain assumptions and hypotheses. We never stop checking, verifying and reformulating new hypotheses if earlier ones prove to be less accurate or downright false.

All true scientists work that way. And scientists know very well that future generations might prove their theories wrong. That's the spirit of science.

Like science, life too is a constant process of refinement. You don't latch on to one single intellectual insight and tell yourself: That's it, that's the Final Solution, simply because it feels so right inside. And more dangerously so, when it appears to be intellectually elegant.

We must learn to accept and respect uncertainty. For it is uncertainty that drives the progress of humankind and promotes tolerance among fellow human beings. The alternative has brought death, destruction and untold suffering.

But then again, I could be wrong.

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