“Knowledge or Certainty”

Welcome to the eleventh episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.


Knowledge or Certainty

In Chapter Eleven, Dr. Bronowski mixes epistemology with physics, and ends on a point of ethics. I agree with his conclusions, but his path to reach them is a little dubious in parts.

On the first page of the chapter, Bronowski states:

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.”

I think this is true, and the most important lesson of the book so far. The first sentence in this quotation is an expression of fallibilism, as it is called in epistemology. Unfortunately, Bronowski undercuts himself by attempting to support this thesis with Quantum Mechanics, which has little to do with it.

In the first part of the chapter, he devotes a few pages explaining electromagnetic waves on a middle school level. He also mentions that the x-ray diffraction technique, invented in 1912 by Max von Laue, uses x-rays to directly image atoms, demonstrating that atoms are real and that x-rays are electromagnetic waves.

After discussing German university life in the 1920s, Bronowski arrives at Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But Bronowski is thrown off by the name, and it does not appear he understands what it is. The Uncertainty Principle is not a principle: rather, it is a physical law, and it is not fundamentally about uncertainty; a better name for it in English would be the “Unsharpness Relation” which is closer to the German word. This law is a result of wave mechanics, not particle behavior. Bronowski wants to rename it the “Principle of Tolerance”, as in we have some error tolerance for knowledge, and we should tolerate variation of information and eschew dogma. It’s a nice thought, but unfortunately this has nothing to do with Uncertainty Principle in physics. The fact that humans cannot know every datum in the Universe was realized long before Werner Heisenberg.

The last section of the chapter describes Leo Szilard, who realized a kind of chain reaction could split atomic nuclei, and his efforts to prevent the weaponization of this knowledge. Bronowski closes the chapter with the important point that tragedies like the Holocaust are the kind of things which happen when “people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality ….” He is warning the world that “we have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Recent episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Ten

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Nine

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Eight

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