Sunday, April 03, 2016

Notes for a commonplace book (18)

Milan Kundera:
Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a narrow-minded tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K. is an innocent man crushed by an unjust Court, or the Court represents divine justice and K. is guilty.

This "either-or" encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel's wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.

— From "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes"

1 comment:

Chris Dunn said...

The wisdom of uncertainty goes too far in both directions—it reduces wisdom to ‘knowing we don’t know anything’ while it elevates uncertainty to the science of probability. It’s something of a slap in the face—we know we’re not supposed to think we matter—but we like to think our knowledge does. To accept the wisdom of uncertainty is to put humanity right back on a par with amoebae and fungi—all the drilled-down complexity of contemporary chemistry, physics, and math bends our minds—only to answer that, no, we can’t say for sure exactly what tomorrow’s weather will be.

Not that I wish to conflate chaos theory with uncertainty—chaos theory is unpredictable simply due to the overload of informational nodes and their interactions—we may not predict the weather, but we understand it. My point is just that, for every great moon-shot or quantum processor that proves the grandeur of science, there is a complimentary aspect of reality about which we haven’t the slightest clue—and chaos theory is just one item on that long list.

Uncertainty goes far deeper, all the way down to levels of microscopy where observation itself is a contact sport, and all the way up to the cosmic background radiation that represents the resonance of the Big Bang. Uncertainty lies in the gap between defining standard units of measure and the taking of those measurements in the field—between, essentially, geometry and engineering, the theoretical ideal and the practical application.

A scientist learns first that the human paradigm is an instinctive one—that intuition can be both a help and a hindrance in the pursuit of reality’s outlines. We see flat ground and setting suns—but science changes our perception—or rather it’s interpretation—so that we understand that this patch of earth is a patch of a great sphere too small to evince its curvature; and that the sphere’s spin gives the illusion of Sol’s travels—even though our eyes continue to see things as they appear to be. So, lesson one—our bodies, our senses, even our brains—lie to us. The universe is what it is—human perception of that universe is another thing entirely—what greater argument for the wisdom of uncertainty?

To err is human—to have an opinion is equally so. If our opinions are more often right, when others are wrong, that just makes it all the more galling when we misconstrue. And it’s what makes it okay for people to have different opinions—even the rightest person will occasionally be wrong, so we allow for the fact that anyone has a shot at being right. Science is the testing ground for opinions—proving your theory goes a long way towards making you right—but even then, subsequent science may point out a flaw in that theory—being right isn’t even a permanent condition. There is the final argument—how can we be surprised that the universe is filled with uncertainty—if certainty is something we ourselves have never known, only pretended to? Certainty is a wish—uncertainty is the reality.