The Other I

January 21, 2011

Poetry and science: a personal manifesto

I have just had an energetic exchange about poetry and science with someone whom I think believes I put too much faith in science and not enough in poetry.

I am aghast.

I have spent so much of my professional life droning on that science is not a source of absolute certainty, that scientific facts are relative and that these facts can and often do change.  I also have argued – even here on this blog – that science is not all-encompassing.  Very few of the most important decisions in our lives can be subject to a verifiable scientific analysis.  And even if they could, they would not yield certainty.

I fall in love, for instance, and believe with passionate conviction that I will be happy with this person for the rest of my life.  My parents do not agree and strongly counsel against my marrying this person.  Whom should I trust?  myself or my parents?  Could I subject this decision to science?

Well, no.  Science might be able to tell me the odds of such a marriage lasting for my life time.  But science cannot study two unique individuals and predict more than the odds of our staying together.  I might want to consider those odds, but it is impossible for science to tell me whether I would be among the majority or minority of possible outcomes.  It is simply impossible for science to control all the variables that would determine the outcome and give me an absolute answer.

And we can multiply these situations.  Should I take this job?  should I have another child?  should I buy this property?  should I paint my bedroom wall another colour?  There is no end to the questions science cannot answer for us.

I must – and do – trust my intuition, my sense of truth, of beauty, of love, for right.  I “discern,” if you will, what others will do, what I think will happen if I make one or another choice.  I rely on poetry (albeit, often enlightened by science) to choose what I will live for, what I hope I would be willing to die for.

But discernment isn’t necessarily right any more than science.  Poetry can dazzle me with its magic.  Music can send me  marching off to war to kill my fellow human.   Poetry in the widest sense can be blindingly wrong.

So neither poetry nor science are sources of absolute certainty.  There are two things, however, that I value in science with passion.

The first is the astounding universe science is constantly unfolding.  I read about the world revealed by quantum mechanics and it creates for me the same wordless astonishment and wonder that Mozart’s concerti give me.  Or W.H.Auden’s poetry.  Or last night’s spectacular sunset.

The second thing I revere about science is that by definition it is never finished.  It never draws a double line and says “we know this without a shadow of a doubt and it will never change.  It is an eternal truth.”  My scientific conclusions are never given the absolute unquestioning acceptance of unchanging dogma by other scientists.  The door is always open to think again.  One can’t just come up with another idea, of course, and claim with convincing charisma that it is better than the old idea.  Science insists that one submit one’s convictions to empirical tests and to the scrutiny of the scientific community.

No, science is not my religion.  Science is not my poetry.  But science is a wonderful teacher and a strict task master.

In the long run science never lets you forget that you might be wrong.  Poetry doesn’t do that.  Mozart doesn’t either.

Enough.  I’m now going to listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.  I think they are one of the most beautiful things on this earth.

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