Jacob Bronowski and the need for uncertainty

October 22, 2006

One of my early intellectual heroes was Jacob Bronowski, whose magnificent series The Ascent of Man aired in the early 1970s on PBS. (It and the original series of James Burke’s Connections rank high on my list of reasons why public television remains valuable and should be defended.) In that pre-VCR era, I was glad to discover that the book drawn from the series was pretty much a direct transcript, which changes made mostly to compensate for the absence of a clarifying image. It remains a great introduction to the works of this remarkable writer and philosopher.

Years ago, during my first visit to Los Angeles, I puzzled some friends by saying the landmark I most wanted to see was the Watts Towers. That’s because one of the segments of The Ascent of Man, “Grain in the Stone,” dealt with the development of architecture through the ages; after a dazzling voyage across empires of time that took in everything from the workmanlike Roman arch to the gaudy splendor of the Gothic cathedrals, Bronowski ended with the Towers and the story of their builder, Simon Rodia. Watching the show as a young teenager, I promised myself I would visit those unlikely monuments as soon as possible. A decade or so later, I was able to make good on that promise, and when I did, I could hear Bronowski’s words again, clear and strong as ever.

There is a philistine strain in many otherwise intelligent people that holds science accountable for atrocities such as the mechanized savagery practiced by Nazi Germany. Bronowski, with great eloquence and a strain of poetry that belied cliches about scientific dryness, defended science against the charge and went on to argue, commandingly, that the endlessly questioning and probing nature of science defies such evils — that it is, in fact, humanity’s best defense against them. In the tremendously moving close to the series, Bronowski stood by a pond behind the Auschwitz death camp and spoke of the real source of the dehumanization that made Auschwitz possible. Via one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, you can watch the YouTube link and see it for yourself.

The need for uncertainty was a thread binding all of Bronowski’s writings and speeches. He returned to the theme many times, often with great epigrammatic wit:

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

“Has there ever been a society that died of dissent? There have been several that died of conformity in our lifetime.”

“Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.”

“Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human imaginative values which science has evolved.”

“Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether it will be a man.”

One of the most disturbing books I own is an old catalogue of torture implements used by the Spanish Inquisition — part of a touring exhibition sponsored by human rights groups. In it you will find out about such devices and techniques as the twisting stork, the expanding pear, squassation and the Judas Cradle, as well as the specific heresies and offenses they punished. I’m not suggesting you seek it out — in fact, you might want to cherish your ignorance. There have been a few occasions when I wondered if I was better off knowing exactly what the inquisitors did.

But these awful tools are the fruits of certainty, forged and tested in an era when the bodies of men were viewed simply as the envelopes containing their souls, and that the cleansing of the soul (and, by extension, state and society) justified the infliction of horrible pain and injuries on the fleshy container.

The devices in the catalogue show torture at its most grotesquely refined, but they are based on brutishly simple principles that can be carried out with the means at hand. We see the principles at work in the appalling photographs from Abu Ghraib; we hear echoes of their justification in the words of the lickspittle pundits who prate about “moral clarity” and justify torture by telling us that ideas about human rights and values are only conveniences, ready to be tossed over the side in times of peril. Maybe we’ll go back and clean them off and restore them to use when times are better. Maybe we won’t.

“Faith” is an interesting word. It implies that one is willing to accept something on the basis of no evidence beyond the fact that many people before you have also accepted it. There can be no questions about faith, which is why I put my faith in questions.

So did Jacob Bronowski. That’s why his work is more relevant than ever, at a time when the people in charge of America are unwilling to accept any questions, or allow any questioning of their own certainties.

9 Responses to “Jacob Bronowski and the need for uncertainty”

  1. geoff Says:

    When I was a wee teen The Ascent of Man was re-broadcast and it blew me away. Why don’t they repackage that sucker on DVD?

  2. Steven Hart Says:

    It is on DVD, from Ambrose Video. Click on the title link in my post for The Ascent of Man and it will take you there. I know what I want for Christmas.

  3. Caveat Says:

    You’ve really outdone yourself this time…wonderful piece.

    I didn’t watch the program but I loved the book and still have it – funny, I was thinking of rereading it a few weeks ago. I really think I should…

  4. Comte de Rochambeau Says:

    The failure of the arguement for torture lies in the basis of our
    lives as score keepers of the soul. So many points for this or that until the tipping point is reached and the evil pours out over us and we become the wretch. The danger of becoming evil in defense of what is right has come to us in places such as
    My Lai. The resulting issues and the cadre of enablers claiming
    to judge and dismiss these crimes as necessary to enforce some
    arcane position of military method seperate us from truth. Thus
    Colin Powell becomes Sulla and his disgrace far from costing him his life becomes power. I digress. Uncertainty for sure.

  5. Ray Radlein Says:

    If I recall correctly, the only Region 1 DVD release of The Ascent of Man which is available is a very basic transcoding from the old VHS masters, designed for use in schools in place of their old videotape versions; it’s not of particularly good quality.

    There is a Region 2 release, but, of course, it is of limited usefulness in America.

    I’m still hoping for high quality, remastered Region 1 versions of Ascent, Connections, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. At least Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is finally available here.

  6. Come de Rochameau Says:

    In fairness the majority of the people now required by their jobs
    to enact the mechanical aspects of our new law. Demeaned by
    an act of Congress. Will have the protection of said law to become less than human in service of the Country. Will have less VA benefits to rely upon when the nightmares come.
    The keepers never leave the jail.

  7. Steven Hart Says:

    Thanks, Cave-man, and everybody else who responded to this post. I never knew there were so many Bronowski-ites out there.

    Ray Radlein: The DVDs I refer to are available through Ambrose Video. Are those the schlocky ones you’re talking about? I think the “Connections 1” DVD is touted as being remastered for DVD.

  8. disembedded Says:

    It is not the “need for uncertainty” that is so critical, but rather an embracing of the uncertainty in life. They are two very different perspectives. I argue this point in a rejoinder to Andrew Sullivan’s posting at:


  9. Ascent of Man DVD series was digitally remastered in 2006. While not Hi-definition there is a significant improvement to the original version.

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