The Principle of Tolerance: Curing Ourselves of the Itch for Absolute Knowledge & Power

The Principle of Tolerance: Curing Ourselves of the Itch for Absolute Knowledge & Power

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.’ We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Oliver Cromwell

It’s difficult to think in terms of tolerance in the age in which America elected a president who doesn’t give one hint of being tolerant.  What he does do is encourage violence, not only in his campaign rallies, but now after being elected he’s back on the road holding the same rallies, and encouraging hate, bigotry and racism.  And now, with access to the most powerful military the world has ever seen, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles, unleashes violence with the push of a button.  Even Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce secretary said at the Milken Institute Global Conference, the Syria missile strike was “after-dinner entertainment.”  The “guests” found his comment humorous, and burst into laughter.

What we have here among the people who Trump has assembled in the White House and in his Administration are a lot of people who believe in certainty.  They believe they have the right answers, never thinking for a moment that they might be wrong, or that in the interests of a civil society, they might compromise. As Oliver Cromwell said, in the quote at the top of this post, “think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Yet people were killed in the Syria bombing, and Americans at a conference, dressed probably to the nines, laughed at the bombing, and found it humorous.  What were they thinking?

And today, the House of Representative barely passed a bill (217-213) that essentially replaces The Affordable Care Act, which could mean that more than 20 million people could lose their health coverage.  This bill also reduces Medicaid payments to the states which would mean either not as many people would be supported, or the support would be less.  In addition to the poor, Medicaid also is a lifeline for people with disabilities. To remove or lessen support, would be devastating to people in need of support.

I could go on and describe other actions by this administration that show how little they think of people and the effects of their actions on the well-being of citizens. Instead they are more interested protecting the interests of business and thinking tanks, and less interested in science.  Consequently, we find that the EPA’s purpose to protect the environment and human health is being trumped by ignorance.  Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, and the President’s chief denier of climate science, wants to decimate the EPA by reducing its budget by 30%, which will lead to unhealthy and unsafe environments (think the Flint River fiasco, which is being repeated across the country).
These are examples of a monstrous attack on citizens, not only in the U.S., but in other countries as well.  Tomahawk missiles, climate science denial, and boorishness are all signs of intolerance and certainty.

Since January 20th, the bigotry, racism, and hate crimes have increased enormously.  This is well documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

An important concept that is relevant here is the principle of tolerance. Tolerance is a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own.

In a graduate course that that I taught many years ago, I introduced my students to the work of Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician and scientist (1908 – 1974). He was also a poet, author and creator of the popular BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Man videos, and text. I also used Bronowski’s important book, Science and Human Values, a profound book on human creativity and human dignity.

Central to the course was that Bronowski explored the nature of knowledge and raises questions about the certainty of our knowledge, and how as human beings we should view knowledge. Bronowski helps us understand one of the important principles of science that emerged in the 20th Century was The Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty. It was important to me at the time that Bronowski used this concept from quantum mechanics, and applied to knowledge in what Bronowski called “the real world.”

Throughout the matrix of hate that seems to pervades the backdrop of our political lives, the principle is important for us to understand.

The Principle of Uncertainty Renamed The Principle of Tolerance

Here is what Bronowski had to say about the Principle of Uncertainty and why he renamed it the Principle of Tolerance:

The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science or outside of 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.

For more than fifty years, industries such as tobacco and oil, gas & coal have perverted the principle of uncertainty by jumping on the word uncertain, and replacing it with a clever phrase: The science of climate change is “unsettled.”  They created a way to dogmatize the conversation about truth, knowledge and the way that knowledge emerges.

Bronowski says this about knowledge, dogma, and uncertainty.

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 in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It’s a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance, and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited.

And then Bronowski forecasts what is possibly happening today that did occur in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.

It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty. It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.

We now have a U.S. government administration of billionaire leaders who are about absolute knowledge & power.  It is especially disturbing that none of these so-called leaders show any empathy, or tolerance.  Yet, millions of Americans support their policies and flock to rallies that Trump holds.  Are these people the consenting adults enabling what happened in Germany after Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany, happen here?

But as Bronowski said:

In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.’ We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.’


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.