Max Born, the subject of the Google Doodle today, was born this day, December 11th 1882. He was of a group of distinguished and extremely influential physicists who developed the formative thought for what we know today as Quantum Mechanics.
Besides physics, Born stretched his considerable intellect into other fields also. Ethics was a favorite of his.
In 1954 during a lecture on Statistical Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics he said this: ”I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc. are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science,… This loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given to us. For the belief in a single truth and in being the possessor thereof is the root cause of all evil in the world.”
Now I agree with some of that, I don’t like the condescending notion that what is not science is “figments of the imagination”, after all it was a very great scientist who said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”; but it’s in the last sentence that Born destroys his own argument with a self evident contradiction. “The belief in a single truth and in being the possessor thereof is the root cause of all evil in the world,” Is he absolutely sure of that? He seems to be. It’s not stated as a theory but as an absolute on which the whole premise rests; and to be absolutely sure of such a statement is clearly fatal to the absolute statement. How can you be absolutely sure in the single truth that being sure of any single truth is the root of all evil in the world?
It has been very successfully argued, and demonstrated, that the inverse is actually true. That it is the lack of the belief in absolute certainties that is the root cause of evil in the world. Perhaps not all evils, but certainly a great majority of them. Religious wars pale in comparison.
The actions of such individuals as Stalin, Pol Pot, Bonaparte, The Kim’s, et al; were carried out precisely because they denied any and all absolutes.
The serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is quoted as saying, “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”
But besides that, what about the contradiction? Born was a very smart man, much smarter than I am. How could he not see the contradiction?
I belive that the lack of belief in a single truth is the root cause of most evil in the world; and I can do so without the same built-in contradiction that seems to escape, not just Born, but most all atheist intellectuals with staggering regularity. In the rush to be open minded they seem to have allowed their thinking to escape their brains.
This same contradiction occurs with other issues posed by atheist intellectuals to try and discredit absolute truth. The intolerance of religion, for example, is regularly the given reason to be intolerant of the religious.
I heartily agree with him though, that absolute certitude, absolute exactness, and final truth are concepts far beyond the reach of Science. Science cannot possess any single truth and still remain Science.
Which would make everything Science has so far discovered open to reasonable debate. And not just “qualified” debate, or peer-review. Science has not advanced by the actions of scientists alone; in fact is has often been those on the fringe or completely out of the science-circle who have achieved the greatest discoveries of Science.
Still this does not mean that we cannot be sure of anything, the methods of science are wonderful but they are not the only methods we have. The methods of Science themselves are dependent on a vast foundation of very non-scientific methods. Since every experiment one does not conduct oneself requires at least a small measure of faith to accept as accurate, truthfully executed, and complete.
Now when it comes to Ethics, our problem is not the existence of absolute truth; that is a science smokescreen. It's a bit like a man entering a game of cards that's been going on for a long time with out him, and then immediately declaring everyone else a cheater because they haven't been playing by his rules. Clearly absolute truth exists. The problem is about the nature of absolute truth, is it objective or is it subjective?
All the evil in the world is not committed on the basis of absolute truth, but on the basis of objectivity. And truth is not objective, it is subjective; and it is also absolute. Ethics ends with denying the existence of absolute truth, but it starts with accepting the subjectivity of absolute truth.
Or, to put it another way, the most intelligent person in the room is not, by their intelligence, also the most honest. Born could not see his contradiction; it wasn't because he lacked the intellect, he just, like most of us, lacked the honesty.