Debate Magazine

Hubris and Humility

By Cris

Anyone who spends time in the heavens that are used book stores will surely have seen Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973). Most stores worth their salt will have two or even three copies in the science section. These are usually covered in dust, untouched no doubt because the title is so awful. I’ve always had the impression that The Ascent was a triumphal, and positively manly, celebration of human evolutionary progress. I’ve further assumed that whatever paleoanthropology it contained was badly out of date. Lucy was found a year after The Ascent was published.

As it turns out, The Ascent is an account of progressive cultural evolution, driven by scientific knowledge; it does not say much about biological evolution. This sounds like an even better reason not to touch those dusty tomes. Humanity’s steady and inexorable march from “primitive” to “civilized” is the great myth of modernity. Superstition, so this story goes, is being steadily replaced by science. It’s a Panglossian narrative in which some scientists, especially the high-profile popularizers, cast themselves as heroes. By the end of the story, humility has been banished and hubris rules.

With all this in mind, it is refreshing to learn that Jacob Bronowski was not a naive optimist or fundamentalist when it came to science. For moral and methodological reasons, he was wary of the certitude that sometimes flows from science. In this sharp essay on Bronowski and his BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” Simon Critchley observes:

Bronowski began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.

It appears I was wrong about Bronowski. It’s the sort of thing that happens when you judge a book by a dusty cover.

Ascent of Man Book

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