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It Matters Who Wins


Amidst charges of implanted memories and celebrity arrogance, I have no insight into what occurred between Mr. Allen and the younger Ms. Farrow. One side seems to think that our “rape culture” induces people to disbelieve victims. The other side believes that accusations in the court of public opinion open the door to character assassination. Both are right, which does little to satisfy those seeking a clear path to certainty and moral outrage.

The truth the avalanche of accusations on all sides has brought to light is that factual truth is always contingent and never certain. The drive for certainty leads quickly to ideological simplifications that deny inconvenient facts in the name of coherent narratives. Over and over the facts are being made to fit the theory; such ideological certainty at the expense of reality is the root of fascism and all totalitarian impulses.

This indeed is the point of a wonderful essay mercifully unrelated to the Allen affair and written by Simon Critchley in The New York Times. Critchley is ostensibly writing about the 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Specifically, Critchley focuses on one episode titled “Knowledge or Certainty.” Touching on physics and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the show begins with the premise that while science aims to provide an objectively accurate picture of the world, modern science has proven that such objectivity is impossible. In Critchley’s summation, there is “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.”

The lesson of modern science is that “There is no God’s eye view.” Anyone who claims to know the truth about the material world (and even more so about the moral or spiritual worlds)  is “not just wrong, they are morally pernicious.” The point is that “[e]rrors 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.” And the result of this is that,

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.”

At this point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode on “Knowledge or Creativity,” a clip that suddenly shifts the scene “to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered.” We see Dr. Bronowski walking in Auschwitz. He says:

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts.  It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s 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 some 4 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 men 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. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell, ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.’

In other words, fascism, fundamentalism, and the holocaust are caused by a poor understanding of science, a confusion of necessarily hypothetical scientific knowledge with a push-button philosophy of certainty.

Even as Critchley and Bronowski beseech us to think we may be mistaken, I detect no suggestion that we should harbor doubts about the fact or the evil of the holocaust. Born in arrogance and certainty, the evil of the holocaust stands as an exception, something we all understand and know to be horrifically wrong. It may be true that “[w]e always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.” At the same time, there are times when to equivocate in our judgment is to refuse to do justice and even to be complicit in the justifications of wrong.

It may be true that science counsels humility and tolerance, but justice in the end requires making judgments. One of the great challenges of our time is the need to judge absent the solace of absolute knowledge or the illusions of certitude. We must at once admit to the uncertainty of the scientific age and insist that certain truths and certain judgments are beyond meaningful dispute. There are facts—that the holocaust happened and that it was a tragedy—that simply must not be denied. In other words, it matters that the Nazis did not win.

It is, of course, possible that had the Nazis won, our view of antisemitism today would be horrifically different. There is no cosmological truth to Nazi evil; but we humans don’t live disembodied in the cosmos. We live here, on this earth. And on this earth in this world that we have made, certain facts like the evil of the Nazi Final Solution are true. This does not mean that they are written in the stars or revealed by a God or carried by the wind. It does mean that such facts are the foundation of the common world in which we live as humans amidst plurality. In Hannah Arendt’s poetic language, these basic truths are told in stories and they are the basic building blocks of the world we share. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In the common world, certain facts matter; the victory of common truths is not trivial if we are to live together in a shared world.

That it matters who wins, which facts we embrace, and which stories we tell to our children brings to mind an interview given by Woody Allen and discussed in a thoughtful essay by Damon Linker.  Discussing Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen explicitly defends the main character who kills his lover when she threatens to expose the affair. As Linker elaborates on Allen’s point: “The viewer [of Crimes and Misdemeanors] is left to conclude that Judah got away with his crime scot-free—and that such an outcome is possible for anyone courageous enough to violate accepted moral customs and lucky or clever enough to avoid getting caught by the legal authorities.” Linker then cites this quote from Allen’s interview:

On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things…. People by the thousands watch it, thinking it’s very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it’s utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It’s meaningless.

The meaninglessness of the world, Allen suggests, means that it doesn’t matter who wins. But that is sports, right? On the cosmic level and as a question of justice, it doesn’t matter if the Seahawks or the Broncos win the Super Bowl. It matters for the players and fans and corporate sponsors, but not in the grand scheme of things.

The problem is that Allen sees the triviality of sports as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of the human world. Here is Allen speaking in another interview in Commonweal Magazine, also cited by Linker:

Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems.

It is worth asking how sincere we should take Allen to be here. If he really thought the world were meaningless, why would he write about its meaninglessness? Is it simply that he writes for the relief of unbearable urges? Couldn’t he then write about pretty much anything? It does seem that Allen writes not simply to relieve himself but also because he has something to say. That he thinks what he writes matters.

What matters, Allen’s films suggest, is truth.  Here is what Allen says later in the same Commonweal interview when asked about the apparent amorality of Crimes and Misdemeanors.

I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others.

For Allen, his film is about truth, namely the truth that the world has no meaning and that evil can prevail and often does.

Linker labels Allen a nihilist, by which he means the conviction that “There is no justice.” And that seems right insofar as Allen does reject and moral or spiritual meaning.

What is missing in Linker’s analysis is an appreciation of the moral significance of nihilism. Part of the problem is that nihilism signifies two related but different ideas. First, nihilism is a rejection of all certainty; nihilism comes from nihil, meaning nothing. It is the philosophy of nothing. Second, nihilism as it is associated with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche also takes on the sense of re-valuation of all values. It is thus not merely a negative philosophy but also a call for the creation of new and immoral values. In Linker’s essay, nihilism is understood in the first and strict sense to be a negation of what is. In this sense, however, nihilism is inherent in all critical thinking and in thinking itself.

All thinking must negate what is to free itself for the new. Negation, or nihilism, “is but the other side of conventionalism.” That is why Hannah Arendt saw that “what we commonly call ‘nihilism’ is actually a danger in the thinking activity itself.” What nihilism agitates against is certainty, the “desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary.” Thinking, Arendt argues, is “equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.” It is opposed to common sense and all ideologies. Because thinking sets up obstacles truths and opposes settled certainties, thinking is dangerous: “There are no dangerous thoughts,” Arendt writes, “Thinking itself is dangerous.”

In a scientific age that, as Critchley reminds us, is allergic to certainty, nihilism understood as a rejection of dogmas and certainties is not an immoral doctrine so much as it is the truthful insistence that we oppose what Critchley calls the “monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism.” Critchley’s essay touches on the human need for tolerance of meaningful plurality and difference. It is your weekend read.


Posted on 7 February 2014 | 7:16 pm

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