Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Dangers of Certainty

For a long time, uncertainty and ambiguity have been among my favorite topics to read, write and think about. And, I mean that from a religious point of view—I am theologically committed to the idea of uncertainty. I suspect that would sound somewhat strange to someone who tends to think of religion as it is presented in larger settings–usually as absolute, confident assertions about who or what God is, what God wants and how others are wrong about those very same questions.

Me? I think that real truth (or, maybe I should say, real Truth) is never found in absolutes and certainties. There's an old Yiddish proverb that "to know God is to be God*," which I think is another way of saying that no one, other than God, can ever really be certain about anything when it comes to God. If my feeble, limited mind** can contain an idea, then that idea is, pretty much by definition, small enough to be contained in my feeble, limited mind. Which means it ain't as big as God!

* I tried to find the original Yiddish, and according to Google it seems that lots of cultures claim that as their original quote. One more thing I thought I knew...

** And, compared to an ultimate God, all of our minds are feeble and limited, right?

A lot of my writing over the years has been explicitly or implicitly about this topic. If you don't believe me, check out these blog posts (which are mostly implicit) or this sermon (which is pretty explicit!) on the topic. I even have a file of interesting ideas and articles on this topic, in the theory that, one day, I may even have a book to write about it!

But, lately, I haven't been writing so much. I still feel that it's one of the most important topics in my religious life, and as a Rabbi (which is a different). Especially given how certain many others in the world (and, especially in the religious world) seem to be, I think it's an absolutely essential topic. One of the most essential, frankly. But, I haven't had anything new to say about it in a while. So, I find myself not saying much, at all.

But then, I was pointed towards a recent blog post from the New York Times. It's titled The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz. I can't recommend strongly enough that you read it, and watch the (four minute) video with. It's simply extraordinary.

* Thanks, Steve B!

The author, Simon Critchley, points out that the history of science has actually not been an inexorable march towards certainty. People often assume that it is—as we learn more, we become more certain about how the world works. And, on the surface, that is indeed how science seems to work. But, real scientists have been learning for a long time just how uncertain we necessarily are about world:
Dr. Bronowski’s 11th essay took him to the ancient university city of Göttingen in Germany, to explain the genesis of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the hugely creative milieu that surrounded the physicist Max Born in the 1920s. Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty. Heisenberg’s insight is that the electron is a particle that yields only limited information; its speed and position are confined by the tolerance of Max Planck’s quantum, the basic element of matter.
Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.
The plain, scientific truth is that it is impossible for human beings to ever know, with absolute precision and certainty, anything. Anything at all. A certain amount of uncertainty is (quite literally?) built into the cosmos. Scientists know this–as far as I know, this is not a disputed point anymore. But, perhaps ironically*, many religious leaders, and religious non-leaders, seem to not accept this in their own lives. We might be uncertain about the exact state of an electron, but that doesn't mean that we can't be certain about God, right?!? 

* I say "ironically" because, in theory, we're supposed to be the humble ones. Right?

It's obviously ridiculous idea, when I put it like that*. But, that really does seem to be the basis on which many people speak about religion: as a realm of absolute certainty in an uncertain world. I'm with Critchley (and the Dr. Bronowski he quotes) in believing that that's among the most dangerous attitudes in the world:

* that's why I put it like that.
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.
If I believed in tattoos* I might get that last sentence tattooed somewhere prominent on me.

* I have some religious objections to them, of course. But, mainly I'm against inflicting pain on myself.

Look, by this point in my searching, I'm fairly well convinced that all of our various statements about God only makes sense as metaphor and approximation. I'm an extreme non-literalist, and to quote myself, a Radical Non-Fundamentalist. So, I know I truly am (somewhat ironically) a bit extreme in this way. I simply don't believe that anything any of us say about God should ever be taken literally. But, even if you're less extreme and I am– even if you're a bit more of a certain, literalist than I am, don't you have to admit to at least some uncertainty? Don't you have to admit that in a world in which we can't be precisely sure of the location of the smallest building blocks of matter, we also can't be sure of the will of the Divine?

And, if you can't be absolutely sure about that, then don't you have to be at least a little bit tolerant about those who believe, or think, differently than you do?

It's really difficult to kill someone over an idea that you aren't 100% sure is true. Isn't it?

I just wish that it wasn't such a seemingly difficult concept for others, especially my partners and cousins in striving for God, to accept.
We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was pretty sure this was a favorite topic of yours. Thanks for the shout-out and, as always, for the additional insights.