Something from my favorite non-fiction author, Chet Raymo:
et me speak for gray.
Not black or white. Good or evil. Truth or falsity. Yes or no.
Let me speak for well, maybe. Sort of. More or less. I think so.
Let me speak for tempered certainty.
Until now, I was reluctant to speak for gray for fear of being considered wishy-washy. Indecisive. Unprincipled. But lately it seems as if we are surrounded on every side by zealots, and it's not a pretty sight.
We are surrounded by people who are so certain of their Truth that they are willing to strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded pizza parlors. Or fly airplanes into towers. Or hurl vicious epithets at young children walking to school. Or bomb abortion clinics. People who would subvert American principles of civil liberties to fight those who have no principles of civil liberty.
Flag-wavers and flag-burners. Fundamentalists of the right and fundamentalists of the left. ''It's America's fault they hate us'' and ''Bomb them into the Stone Age.'' There's an ugly stridency in the air, too many people who are certain God is on their side, too much certainty with a capital C.
So, why does the world look gray to me? After all, I was raised in a tradition of Absolute Truth. I was taught that infidels will burn in hell, at least those guilty of ''culpable ignorance.'' At university, I used a textbook called ''Theology and Sanity'' by F. J. Sheed, the thesis of which was that any sane person must agree with the author. ''Armies of youth flying the standards of Truth,'' we sang. There was much good in my early education, but not much gray.
But I was studying science, too, and the history and philosophy of science. I saw an evolution of truth with a lower-case t. I saw people who held their cherished beliefs to the fire of experience, and who changed their minds when their tentative truths failed the test of fire.
When a group of Britons established the first modern scientific society in the 17th century, they took as their motto, ''Take no one's word.'' They believed the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses. And even the senses can be deceiving. Which is why they embraced the experimental method. Reproducibility. Observations that can be repeated by anyone, and that always give the same result.
Many people think of science as a body of knowledge - the germ theory of disease, evolution by natural selection, Newton's laws of motion, that sort of thing. Well, yes, it is. But these things are tentatively held, with varying degrees of certainty. More fundamentally, science is a way of thinking. A way of thinking that rejects absolutes.
Of course, one can't blow hither and yon on a sea of uncertainty. To be useful, any system of knowledge must be confident of itself. To do scientific work at all, one must start with convictions. But every good scientist must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.
Science works in shades of gray.
Which is not to say that science has all the answers, or that scientists are more perfect human beings than nonscientists. There are other paths to truth: tradition, intuition, poetic imagination, the shaman's wisdom. But anyone who has had a good scientific education knows how easily we slip into unwarranted certainty, no matter what the source of truth.
Our current regression from gray into black and white has a parallel in ancient Greek thought, as described by E. R. Dodds in the last chapter of his classic book, ''The Greeks and the Irrational.'' He tells of the great age of intellectual discovery that began with the foundation of the Lyceum in 335 BC, and continued until about 200 BC. Horizons expanded. For the first time in history, it didn't matter where a person was born or what was his ancestry. Individuals began to consciously use traditions rather than be used by them. The scientific way of thinking was invented and briefly flourished.
But there was, Dodds writes, a fear of freedom, a longing for the old certainties. Greek culture slipped back into irrationality. Superstitions revived. Authority and tradition again became arbiters of truth. Tribal gods regained their old sway.
A confident, cautious, openness to gray reverted to the rigid polarities of black and white.
Dodds blames the Greek retreat from rationalism on an ''unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members.'' Any culture that is free must be willing to live with gray. Democracy is gray. Tolerance, internationalism and ecumenism are gray.
Gray isn't easy, but it's the planet's best hope for a civilized future.
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