Simon Critchley has an excellent essay over at The Stone — all about science, morality, certainty, and the 1970s BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man" — which seems very timely given the recent “debate” regarding evolution and creation between Bill Nye and Ken Ham:
For most of the series, Dr. Bronowski’s account of human development was a relentlessly optimistic one. Then, in the 11th episode, called “Knowledge or Certainty,” the mood changed to something more somber. Let me try and recount what has stuck in my memory for all these years.
He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.
This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.
There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.
Here are the final four minutes of the episode in question, which were filmed at Auschwitz and which are incredibly powerful:
I haven’t seen the BBC documentary, but watching these four minutes might lead me to do so. It certainly reminded me of this part of the “evolution/creation debate” Q&A, from earlier in the week:
There were plenty of questions that Nye, leaning on science, couldn’t provide an answer for, but he treated those moments not as defeats but as reasons to be excited about the possibilities of scientific inquiry. Ham, meanwhile, took comfort in what Nye referred to as his “literal interpretation of most parts of the Bible,” reconciling anything he couldn’t answer with the response that God’s word is “the only thing that makes logical sense.”
That all was further confirmed when a member of the audience asked what turned out to be the crux of the debate: what, if anything, would convince the men to change their minds? Ham’s answer: “I’m a Christian.” (In other words, nothing.) Nye, on the other hand, was happy to concede that just one piece of evidence to support a Biblical interpretation of Earth’s formation — that the universe is not expanding, or that rock layers can somehow form in just 4,000 years — would cause him to change his mind “immediately.”
HT: Jonathan Knoll.