Lazy Luddite Log


But Am I Sure?

I recently spent a night on the town with some friends I had made in the Australian Democrats. We get on like a house on fire but I was also reminded how much I admire them. This then got me to wondering whether I have any political heroes. The answer is that I have none. I can respect the ability or commitment of someone. I can think that political figures like Senators Allison and Bartlett and Stott Despoja are fantastic. But it is another thing entirely to say that they are my personal heroes. But what do I think that is anyway?

As I understand it, a personal hero is someone who has had an impact on how we think and feel to such an extent that we elevate them over other humans, and assess them by a new set of criteria, so that the hero becomes someone whose wisdom we accept without question. I cannot do that because someone who would have been a hero of mine made me aware that such hero-worship is a grave mistake.

The person I am referring to is one Jacob Bronowski - a scientist who in 1973 devised and presented the 'Ascent Of Man' documentary on British TV (which replayed on ABC at sometime in my teens). The documentary was a fascinating survey of the history of science and technology (and a direct inspiration for Carl Sagan to do Cosmos) but it went beyond that. Bronowski suggests that the Uncertainty Principle can also be the basis of a philosophy of human conduct and interaction.

In the closing scene of the documentary, Bronowski is standing by a pond at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and expands on his philosophy. You can see it here on YouTube or read a transcript here (the audio-visual medium works a lot better in getting the message across). That scene was done in one take. That mud may well have in it the ashes of some of his own family and friends. It is an amazingly evocative moment in television history and it gets me every time I even think of it.

Bronowki tells us that it is a sense of certainty that allows humans to commit the vilest of crimes. Fundamentalists of whatever kind (religious or secular) will do the things they do to fellow humans because they are sure that they are right. This one scene in an old doco by some academic in daggy tweeds has done more than anything to make me committed to a moderate and consensual form on politics. So - somewhat surprisingly - if I had a political hero it would be a non-politician. But my commitment to moderation and consensus makes me very wary of hero-worship which I identify as one way in which we can succumb to fundamentalism.

Some clever sod may well ask me whether "I am sure that I am not sure" but that is just wordplay. We are talking abstracts here and on a day-to-day basis I will have to make decisions on what is right and wrong. But I can be aware that my understanding of things is at best an approximation and that there may always be something worth considering in the perspectives of others. The risk of embracing what Bronowski calls the Principle of Tolerance is that one can come across as wishy-washy. But compromise is a fact of life in a world made by forces other than our own wishes and imaginings. It is also worth noting that compromise is more than just finding an arbitrary halfway mark between what you and I want. In any case I would rather the shortcomings of compromise to the dangers of adhering to absolutes.

Do I think all this because Jacob Bronowski told me to? I would prefer you to think that I think it because I tell me to.

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  • Wow. Thankyou for linking that clip.
    One of my favourite quotes is from a sci-fi author about his short story... (I love annotated collections, but because it was a collection of many authors I can't remember who the author was!) It goes something like 'Fanaticism is what we must avoid - but of course, I am not fanatical about this.'
    I feel that this balance is missing in so much of the battle between creationists/'intelligent design' supporters and atheists. The only answer to 'I have faith that I am right' seems to be 'I have faith that you are wrong'... which is not where the ideal secular society should spring from. The solution? I don't know. How can one be so certain of one's own uncertainty that one is prepared to deny someone else's certainty? It is a paradox, and of increasing relevance in this world of increasing fundamentalism and radicals vs reactionists. Humans like certainty; it's easier. Of that I'm sure (pretty sure, anyway).

    By Blogger Jess E, At 09 October, 2007  

  • Thanks Jess. I think that avoiding fanaticism is a means rather than an end. If one wishes to prevent all the things that arise from fanaticism then one will resist it strongly. Of course how one responds is important lest one simply produces what one is seeking to prevent.

    It also depends on the context - 'fan' is short for fanatic but in most cases a bit of fandom makes life interesting.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 09 October, 2007  

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