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Hermann Bondi: Arrogance of certainty

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 10 Jun 2008.

A few years ago, I was discussing the tensions between relativism and religion with a friend. In a vastly simplified nutshell, relativism is an understanding of the world which is founded on the principle that everything we know and perceive is relative to our own person (e.g. we perceive the whole world through our senses, which are known to be fallible) and that there can therefore be no such thing as absolute truth. Think of the artificial reality of The Matrix as an extreme example. (The tension between relativism and religion is a topic I continue to be interested in, but it’s so complex that I’ve come to think that understanding it is more or less a lifetime project. I’ve certainly not even scratched the surface, let alone made up my mind.)

In that context I was told that I had to read a certain article by Sir Hermann Bondi (Physicist, 1919–2005) entitled “Arrogance of certainty”, because it apparently forms the basis of every discussion of the topic. I was given a copy of the article on paper, and I liked it because of its lucid and clear writing style. I kept it, even though the paper got quite crumpled in my bag at some point.

Recently I was looking for the article again and searched for it on Google. To my great surprise, I couldn’t find any trace of it, let alone the whole text. Therefore I want to re-publish it here so that others may find it online in future. I believe it was originally published on 20 May 1991 in The Times (London, England), and later republished several times. (Thank you to John E Harris for tracking down the reference.)

I neither fully agree or disagree with this article, but I think it is well worth reading. Without any further comment, here it is.

Hermann Bondi

Arrogance of certainty

I am a non-believer in any revealed religion and a scientist. In my acquaintance with scientists I find both belief and non-belief. I know sufficient numbers of scientists of each persuasion to be willing to classify two statements as both being stupid and palpably untrue prejudices, viz, that a person, being a scientist must accordingly be a believer in a revealed religion, or the opposite statement.

Any thinking person must be struck with awe and wonder on contemplating the mystery and complexity of our universe. We scientists have somewhat enlarged our modest island of understanding that is surrounded by a huge ocean of ignorance. Some feel that there must be an intelligence, an architect of all this grandeur, an architect that may be called God, but without ascribing to this unknown entity any interest in our human affairs or in our prayers. (If I rightly understand, this was Einstein's view.)

There are also people who believe, as a generalized feeling, that this entity, this God, in some undefined way responds to their trouble and their prayers without claiming that they have any describable or communicable knowledge of this their God. Again, there is revealed religion, the belief that God in some way, different for different religions, revealed himself in some precise communicable manner conveying some absolute truth.

I have no quarrel with the first three stages, but I regard the widespread human tendency to have firm faith in a revealed religion as one of our most negative traits. Indeed, I do not call myself an atheist, but an anti-revelationist. To call myself an atheist would mean denying an entity so differently defined by different people that the denial is meaningless. Some say God is love. I would certainly not wish to deny love. Some say God is nature. I am not so absurd as to deny nature. But the certainty involved in revelation horrifies me, and the historical record of the deeds done in the name of such revelations bears me out.

If one looks at religiosity, the immediate staggering fact is that different people believe firmly and fervently in different and, in many respects, contradictory religions. The very variety of faiths is remarkable, yet each can claim adherents of the highest integrity, sincerity and honesty, utterly convinced of their belief. How anyone can have the arrogance to think that their own belief is right and anybody who thinks differently is wrong passes my comprehension. Surely the overwhelming evidence is that the human mind has the tendency to believe firmly but incorrectly, since at most one of the many competing revealed religions can be right.

Nor am I much impressed by what some regard as threads common to different major religions as regards their theory. What has a non-theistic faith like Buddhism in common with a theistic one like Islam? Why are we to stress likenesses now when people have fought to the death over minute differences in their religions?

There is indeed a common morality among all of us humans, enshrined in the golden rule that one should do to others only as one would have done to oneself. I see this founded in our common humanity, which is why I call myself a Humanist. I see this common morality sometimes supported by religion, sometimes perverted by it. Above all we need to strengthen all that unites us with other humans, where religion so readily divides us. This division by faiths, so often pursued with the utmost cruelty, is what surely we should strive to heal, by relegating religion from the public domain to that of individual belief or non-belief.

What I abhor about revealed religion is its supposed absolute certainty. It is here that I see the real conflict between science and religion. In science we know that our understanding, our theories are only provisional, and liable to be upset by experiment and observation. On this basis, so well described by Karl Popper, science has indeed acquired universality with people of different cultures, ideologies, races etc able to cooperate. Science is so successful in this because it is attuned to the basic human characteristic of fallibility. It is the inhuman certainty a believer feels in revelation that is so obnoxious and harmful and unacceptable as a basis for morality.

Of course we must recognize the great role religion has played in history but need not support it. Being an anti-revelationist is in no way arid. It allows one to enjoy freely all that human genius has produced; it allows one to engage untrammelled in the search that is the real joy of living.

Sir Hermann Bondi, FRS, was Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.