Archive for March, 2012


(Written 18 March 2012)

Dear All.

What single piece of writing has, more than any another, influenced your thinking? Perhaps even influenced your whole life?

For most this may not be an easy question to answer. You may well have read a number of influential pieces in your time… but for me the choice is simple. It is Chapter 11 of The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973). In 1979 Bronowski’s insightful essay, Knowledge or Certainty, one of the chapters in the 13-part BBC series, came to my attention; and have I revisited it many times, as the picture of my dog-eared 1981 Futura copy may testify.

The Ascent of Man is a series about the intellectual and cultural development of mankind as viewed through the lens of science and in chapter 11 Bronowski considers what we can and cannot know. The piece starts with an explanation of how shorter and shorter wavelengths are required to detect smaller and smaller objects and how the inevitable uncertainty about what we can know from such experiments may be modelled by a Gaussian distribution. Inevitable because we can never know anything with absolute certainty! Then he goes on to talk about the development of ideas in physics in the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the development and use of the atom bomb in 1945. He points to the irony that just as scientists in Göttingen were formulating a precise understanding of tolerance, “all around them tolerance was crashing to the ground (in Nazi Germany).” When speaking about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle he writes:

“(Heisenberg’s) Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science or outside it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses. First in the engineering sense. Science has progressed step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word passionately about the real world. All knowledge, all information between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or even in any form of thought that aspires to dogma” (p. 231).

It is worth remembering that Bronowski was writing at a time when the world lived under the immediate threat of nuclear war and the burgeoning computerisation scenarios of the day sounded like something from Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. While the space race of the 60s had increased the public’s interest in science, there was at the same time a nervous reaction to the notion that somehow science would overtake our humanity. There was a fear that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling scientific juggernaut would regiment the population in some way, turning souls into “numbers”. Subsequent to reading Knowledge or Certainty, I found out that Bronowski had dealt with the subject of science as a human expression on a number of occasions and almost 60 years after its original publication, I consider his collection of three essays in Science and Human Values (Messner, 1956) to be a great work.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate why this piece has been so meaningful to me is for you to read it for yourself, or to see the last part of it at:

(Please ignore the comments that follow the Youtube video.)

Regards

Jeff

PS: It may not be a coincidence that in the last part of my life I have turned to a formal study of Uncertainty and the epistemology thereof.

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(Written 3 March 2012)

Dear All,

I am not a braai* person in that I do not enjoy the cooking aspect of this primal practice, but I do enjoy the business of staring into the coals (as someone else turns the bits of meat) while the great issues of life and living are discussed. And it is just when the discussion may be flagging that I posit the interpretation that what we are doing, sitting around a fire like that, is a celebration of The Origin Sin. What? How? Surely The Original Sin has something to do with sex?

Before going into an explanation, it is necessary to make the point that what follows is not a scholarly dissertation, but a personal interpretation, partly tongue-in-cheek, of life and living taken very largely from George Steiner’s 1974 Massey Lectures, Nostalgia for the Absolute. Go to http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/massey-lectures/1974/11/ to listen to the full set of these extraordinary lectures.

The Biblical Genesis has it that the first humans lived in a Garden of Eden until they tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the tree of good and evil. According to that ancient interpretation, Man lived in a state of innocence and somehow the acquisition of some particular piece of knowledge resulted in Adam and Eve – each noticing for the first time the exposed genitals of the other – being driven from paradise to suffer in the world out there. Moreover, having tasted of this knowledge there was no way back into the Garden because, “there was placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (King James Version, Genesis, 3:24). Of course the Bible does not refer to, “Original Sin”; that is a phrase developed during the 2nd century from the ideas of Paul of the New Testament and which has largely been corrupted (a strange irony) to have something to do with engaging in sex.

Michelangelo – Fall of Man

So what could that all-important piece of knowledge have been? The social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss offers what to my mind is a plausible answer. Fire! After all, it was fire that Prometheus stole from gods and gave to mortals, an acquisition that so angered Zeus that poor old Prometheus had his liver pecked at by an eagle and in some interpretations, resulted in Pandora and her box of evils being released upon mankind. But why would the acquisition of fire be such a bad thing? Well, according to Levi-Strauss’ explanation of structural anthropology, we live in a conflict between our Biological/Natural state on one hand and our Social/Cultural state on the other. By this explanation, the Original Sin is that humans have overlaid Nature with Culture and in so doing we have found ourselves at odds with the Natural Order. From an interpretation of the myth of Oedipus solving the riddle of the sphinx we may learn that man first comes into the world, on all fours, in a Natural state, then he walks erect, on two legs, but in an un-Natural state which causes him to limp and eventually to use a walking stick to prop himself up. And the role of fire in all of this is that the use of the technology of fire makes the transition from the Natural to the Cultural complete. Fire is able to produce light in what hitherto had been darkness at night; fire allowed for the cooking and smoking of food for preservation, freeing time for other activities; fire made it possible to “refute the constraints of winter”. Fire allowed us to process metals and to make all matter of implements and tools with which we have modified our environment. Sadly, the use of fire in a metaphorical sense has made it possible for us to manufacture weapons capable of destroying not only ourselves, but also the Garden from which we came.

In Robert Johnson’s book, Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness (Harper Collins, 1993) there are some interesting parallels to this story about the outcome of the use of fire. In Transformation, Johnson uses the literary archetypes of Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust to illustrate three levels of human consciousness, namely those of simple consciousness, complex consciousness, and enlightened consciousness. Of course, no third state is to be found in Levi-Strauss’ binary model of Nature vs. Culture, but there are nevertheless many points at which the two stories meet, the one relevant to this tale being the idea that having been excluded from the Garden of Eden because of the acquisition of some key item of knowledge, there was no way back; just as in Johnson’s view, having once moved from a state of simple consciousness to complex consciousness, we too cannot go back. Having traded a life of blissful simplicity for the hurly-burly of a complex, anguished world, there is no returning to a Natural state.

What is left for us then is to struggle on in our angry, fallen state and as George Steiner puts it, “Possessed, as it were, by some archetypal rage at exclusion from the Garden of Paradise, by some torturing remembrance of disgrace, we have scoured the earth for vestiges of Eden and laid them waste wherever we have found them” (Nostalgia for the Absolute, 1974, p. 32).

But every now and then, as we sit about the braai staring wistfully into the coals, from somewhere deep in our primal remembrances there comes an inkling of what it was like in Paradise. It stirs the soul and then in some perverse way, we celebrate the Original Sin.

Regards

Jeff

*Braai is the South African equivalent for barbeque; but with a real fire.