Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Olin Levi Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.
As a follow-up to my recent post about truth, I would like to clarify what I see as the grave danger of being certain that one possesses the truth. As for truths in the natural sciences our concerns are irrelevant. Science by its nature is provisional; it is always open to contrary evidence and willing to adjust its views based on new evidence. Thus arrogant dogmatism is virtually impossible given the scientific method. The attitude of searching for truth and accepting provisionally what the evidence reveals prevents the kind of absolute certainty which is our main concern.
However, when humans believe strongly in areas where truth is difficult or perhaps impossible to attain, or where truth might not even exist, the situation is dire. Unlike in science, where the evidence constrains our thinking, in religion, for example, one can believe virtually anything. Moreover, these beliefs are often held with great fervency. It takes no willpower to believe in gravity or evolution—because the evidence overwhelms an impartial viewer—whereas in religion it often takes much faith. If we combine fervency of belief with strong faith we have a potent mix. If we feel strongly and we reject anything that will contradict our beliefs, naturally we may soon regard our beliefs as infallible. Crusades, inquisitions, persecution, and religious wars are the natural outgrowth of such attitudes. The great American philosopher John Dewey reflected on our concerns:
If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience…. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.
The contemporary American philosopher Simon Critchley also captured our revulsion at arrogant dogmatism in a recent column in the New York Times entitled: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.” Critchley advocates tolerance regarding our assessment of other persons; thereby rejecting the certainty that leads to arrogance, intolerance, and dogmatism.
The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades. … We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.
Critchley also includes a moving video excerpt from Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician and polymath. In the old video Bronowski visits Auschwitz, where he reflects on the horrors that follow when people believe themselves infallible. The video serves as a testimony to remind all of us of our fallibility.