Posted by: Dan | April 8, 2008

Knowledge or Certainty

Medium ImageOne of the foundations of my high school education was watching and discussing Jacob Bronowski’s 13-part series titled The Ascent of Man. It crystallized my thinking about Western thought, science, and the trends that humanity perpetrates. It inspired Carl Sagan to produce his series Cosmos, and resonated with many young minds of my generation. It represents what I think of when I hear the term “Humanism” in the context of open learning.

Below the fold is a clip from the end of chapter 11 of his series, where he says:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false – tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Inspiring. I don’t know if I would describe science quite that way (e.g., we can have absolute knowledge that the Earth is round, orbits the sun, life evolves, and a few other things that we consider facts), but this is exactly the problem when we discuss science vs. faith: the absence of certainty, but a “tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.”

These comments of Bronowski’s unify the concepts that (1) science is a logic for acquiring knowledge despite the inherent uncertainties of any observation or measurement, and (2) that it must compete with man’s unending tendency to affirm the arrogance of certitude and ignorance [i.e. faith]. It is embodied in the modern culture wars of science vs. religion, where observations of reality must contend with “faith.” It is also embodied by the observation that, across the history of man, dogmatic faith in an ideology has always been a decisive factor in man’s inhumanity to man.



  1. Great clip. Is the whole series on Youtube? I recently watched James Burke’s Connections and The Day the Universe Changed both excellent.

  2. Here they are:

  3. “It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers.”

    I’m not a number – I am a free man.


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