I beseech in you, the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken
With these words mathematician Jacob Bronowski concluded the 11th part – on the theme of “Knowledge or Certainty” – of his momentous 1970s BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, with this quote from a letter Oliver Cromwell wrote to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in August 1650
In the closing sequence Bronowski crouched by a pond at Auschwitz into which had been tipped the ashes of the victims of the Nazi programme to annihilate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others who did not match up to the distorted vision of human perfection that underpinned Naz racial ideology.
The central argument of Bronowski’s TV series was that science can be, should be, a force for good, that science has been and will continue to be crucial for the ascent of human understanding and well-being.
However, science, he emphasised, is a human undertaking and subject to human weaknesses. One of these weaknesses – to which we may all be prone, whether we are scientists, theologians, politicians or taxi drivers – is that of absolutism, of claiming a level of certainty about what we know – or think we know – that draws us along the path to moral arrogance.
“There is no absolute knowledge,” said Bronowski.
And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition; and that is what quantum physics says. I mean that literally. Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man. London: BBC, 1973, p. 353
“When people believe that they have absolute knowledge,” Bronowski continued,
…with no test in reality, this [the annihilation of millions at Auschwitz] is how they have behaved. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. (Bronowski, 1973, p. 374)
In Bronowski’s view, it was arrogance, not gas, that killed the victims of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is a mind-numbing place, a vast flat area enclosed by wire fences, entered through the gatehouse through which the infamous trains of cattle trucks carried the Jews of Europe to their deaths. Here the gas Zyklon-B, a product of German science, and industrial-scale management efficiency ensured that the combustion products of the first of those selected by the camp doctors to die would be rising into the sky within 20 minutes of their arrival.This was the ultimate outcome of the dehumanising impact of an absolutist ideology. The names of those who passed through the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz were not recorded.
And yet the human spirit survived. One of the “kapos”, a prisoner working in the building where those not sent to the gas chambers but chosen to live in the bleak barracks and to be worked to death were stripped of their hair, their belongings and their personhood, rescued the family photographs that so many of the deported Jews had brought with them in the mistaken belief that they were merely being relocated. The kapo put the photographs in a suitcase and buried it. The suitcase containing the photographs was unearthed after the liberation of Auschwitz, and many of the pictures are on display in this same building.
I visited Auschwitz on a freezing day in November 2008. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, had invited representatives of Britain’s main faiths to accompany them as a symbol of our determination to bring an end to religious intolerance. I was the Bahá’í representative. We were with a large contingent of Year 11 and 12 high-school students.
As we circulated around the rescued pictures of families – children, parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents – enjoying holidays, celebrating weddings and birthdays and festivals, I bumped into Dr Williams. We looked briefly into each other’s eyes and I knew immediately that he felt the same intense grief that I was experiencing. So much life and happiness, so many relationships, so much potential, annihilated by what Jacob Bronowski calls “the monster in the war machine”.
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts or tortured ghosts. (Bronowski, 1973, p. 370)
As darkness fell, we – the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop, the religious representatives and the students, gathered around the end of the railway track closest to where the crematoria had stood. The sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown by Jews to mark certain religious occasions, blasted into the night; the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop and one of the students recited prayers, and we placed lit candles on the railway track in memory of the “tortured ghosts” who had passed through that place of death.
(Many years ago I had the honour of knowing Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who had himself been interned in Auschwitz and many members of whose immediate family had perished there. Hugo was a man of extraordinary humanity, warmth, openness and humour; he was spiritual and religious in the best sense and a leading advocate of inter-faith dialogue. The human spirit survives, even in the face of such horror.)
Claims to absolute knowledge in science are very likely to be demolished by further research. Claims to absolute knowledge in religious settings are more difficult to shift.
In fact, the mind-set underpinning religious faith has to change. In Revelation and Social Reality (2009), Paul Lample reviews the insights that emerge in Richard J. Bernstein’s book, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Bernstein considers that there is a pendulum swing in almost every discipline between what he calls “objectivism” and “relativism”. Objectivism is the view that knowledge must be grounded on an absolute basis; relativism is the view that claims to knowledge, truth and morality exist only in relation to a particular culture. There is a cyclical relationship between these two epistemological positions.
This line of thought embellished over the centuries has led, according to Bernstein, to a “grand and seductive Either/Or.” “Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos.” It is the choice between objectivism and relativism. However, he views this dichotomy as “misleading and distortive.” (Lample, 2009, p. 172)
Is there a transcendent position that will allow us to escape this dichotomy?
Yes, says Lample. It is what he calls a “nonfoundational” approach to knowledge.
In a nonfoundational perspective, reality does exist, but human beings are limited in their capacity for understanding and, therefore, must struggle over time to derive more useful descriptions and insights about reality that can guide more effective and productive action in the world. (Lample, 2009, p. 173)
In other words, what becomes human beings as they search for truth and generate knowledge, is a certain modesty, a humility, a willingness to doubt and question and to “think it possible [we] may be wrong”. We must, as the Universal House of Justice admonishes us, avoid triumphalism. Rather it behoves us to ensure that we develop and maintain a humble posture of learning.
The human enterprise is, then, the never ending investigation of reality, the search for truth, the quest for knowledge, and as important, the application of knowledge to achieve progress, the betterment of the world, and the prosperity of its peoples. (Lample 2009, p. 173)
This is the 5th in a series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see http://barneyleith.com on Posterous.