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.