The Infantile Need for Certainty
I lead a strange life. I am about as socially isolated as a man can get. I don’t live in a desert island, but culturally Orosi, Costa Rica might as well be. The gringo drifters who end up here are sorry specimens of humanity. To balance this, I have a fast Internet connection right to my bedroom, and I get my mail flown in from Miami to the nearest large town, where I go once a week to get it and shop at the Wal-Mart supermarket.
I end up with one or two large bags of good stuff that I stash on the overhead racks of the bus for the ride home. The locals never do this: shop in Cartago, where the prices and selection are much better, and then lug the stuff home. They are extremely local, and live in their own little world – except when they go to work, when they get on that same bus again at five in the morning, for a three-hour ride to work, and the another three-hour ride home again in the evening. Life in the undeveloped world is tough.
Last week, I loaded up on books from Amazon – five substantial ones in all. Two of them were promptly trashed and carted off by the garbage truck this morning. I am very picky about my reading. Life is too short to waste it on trash, which is now turned out in amazing quantities.
The book I am going to write about now is The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty. From the Preface:
Most people would identify science with certainty. Certainty, they feel, is a state of affairs with no downside, so the most desirable situation would be one of absolute certainty. Scientific results and theories seem to promise such certainty. The popular belief in scientific certainty has two aspects: first, that a state of objective certainty exists and second, that scientific kinds of activities are the methods through which this this state can be accessed. Yet I will make the case the absolute certainty is illusory and that the human need for certainty has often been abused with noxious consequences.
This is an understatement, the need for certainty was one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Modern World – as another book, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity points out. The Reformation caused some of the worst wars in history – and the need to overcome these conflicts, that were tearing Europe apart, drove us to replace religious certainty with scientific certainty.
This is what another book called The Heroic Model of Science. This was the model in vogue when I was in high school, I was going to become a scientist myself and become a hero. But it didn’t quite work out that way. I return to The Blind Spot again:
Yet modern civilization is in crisis! We face not just one crisis but a series of interconnected crises – the economic crisis, the environmental crisis, the the crisis in relations between the secular and religious worlds, especially the world of religious fundamentalism. There is a deep connection between these crises and the modern world of science and technology. In fact, a better way to think about the present situation is that what looks like a series of disparate crises, is really one crisis that manifests itself in various ways – one all-encompassing crisis that arises from inner contradictions that are inherent in modern culture…
The problem lies not with science but with the point of view I call the “science of certainty,” a particular approach to science in which the need for certainty, power, and control are dominant.
He is overlooking the elephant in the living room, the amazing ignorance and self-destructiveness of mass man. This seems like a cop-out to me, but perhaps he does not want to be ridden out of town on a rail, covered with tar and feathers.