Good day, team.
This week’s challenge is about certainty. A close friend of mine sent me a recent New York Times article ― “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz” by Simon Critchley. The article profiles Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician who wrote a number of highly regarded books on science and poetry. He also narrated a series of 12 essays that were televised as “The Ascent of Man.” The 11th essay was title “Knowledge and Certainty.” Here are some of Dr. Bronowski’s thoughts on the subject, as excerpted from the Times article:
“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.
“Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the ‘principle of tolerance.’ Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with ‘zero tolerance,’ as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.
“In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.”
As I read this, I thought about the importance of questioning our own assumptions about others, being willing to test these assumptions and let them go if they appear no longer true or applicable. This state of mind and heart is challenging when we want to help someone improve themselves. We always have a vision of how we think the person should behave. To make that picture a reality, we steer him or her in that direction. More than a few times, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when a client of mine finds a different way to improve. These clients generally start to “take off” with enthusiastic glee as they begin to see more positive outcomes in their relationships with others. If I try to hold them to my picture, their enthusiasm turns into resentment at my attempts to control them.
In coaching, it’s critical not to judge others based on our own standards of behavior or certainty. You may be investing time, energy and money into helping someone improve, but being patient and tolerant while they’re going through the process will enable the new person to emerge. Part of your job is to supply encouragement and to give them room to make the changes they want to make. If you hold too tightly to your idea of what those changes should look like ― or even what the process for making them should be ― you may not recognize when the other person actually changes.
“For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call ‘a play of tolerance,’ whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, ‘Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.’”
These thoughts are quite personal for Dr. Bronowski because many of his family members were killed at Auschwitz.* He makes the point that at the heart of fascism is that terrible certainty that leads one to despicable acts against other human beings.
“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.”
This week, take a look at the ideas, feelings and opinions that you feel certain about. How do these certainties apply to your relationships? Perhaps you have a friend who has drastically different religious beliefs and you’re convinced they are completely wrong. What about your co-worker who wants to take a very different approach to solving the problem you’re both working on? Are you a manager trying to convince your team members to change their behaviors to suit a picture of how you think they should be? How often do your family members irritate you because they’re not doing what you want them to do? How certain are you that you’re right and they’re wrong?
Dr. Bronowski was a scientist, and he believed that inherent in all good science was the idea that nothing is certain. He wrote, “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.”
Critchley writes, “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.”
As you observe your certainties this next week, consider that you might be wrong. Your observations of others are through a lens of thoughts and opinions that are only one view. Instead, use your creative imagination and a broader humility to open up to others and see their fallibility’s as well as their successes. Ultimately, we’ll have a greater appreciation for all human beings, including ourselves.
Have a good week!
* Here is an excerpt from the 11th episode in the documentary Ascent of Man, “Knowledge and Certainty,” narrated by Dr. Jacob Bronowski: http://youtube/p5Umbn6ZBuE
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