Science and Poetry

Science and Poetry header

I had one of those deep conversations with a good friend the other day where we shared the kind of deep nagging philosophical questions that we grapple with during long nights and lonely times.  At one point, my friend said:

Sometimes, I think about how all of the things we see and hear are mere stimuli to our senses, which just create chemical reactions that get processed by our neurons.  Even happiness and sorrow are only biological functions of our cells.  When you think about it, you wonder if anything we experience is actually real at all.*

Immediately, I disagreed.  As for the science, my friend is right, of course.  But my mind bristled at the idea that we are no different than organic Roombas bouncing around from wall to wall as we reproduce and build, and clean the floors.  For me to believe that would be to deny all of the wonder and beauty that is in the world,  ignoring both the joy in all that is good, and the horror of great evil.  This issue has been on my mind ever since.

G.K. Chesterton said in the pages of Orthodoxy, “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do…Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.  The result is mental exhaustion.”  The more I think about this statement, the more I agree.

Now Chesterton was not speaking against the purpose and facts of logic and science, but the tyranny that in their frailty these disciplines often fall prey to.  It is because of this, that art will always be the master of science.

Now, I say this not as some luddite, stuck on ancient ideas of religion, but as a true scientist at heart.  During our aforementioned conversation, I talked about growing up enamored with science, nature, and cosmology.  As a young child I recall constantly picking the shells off of snails piece-by-piece.  I did this not to torture, but because I was fascinated by the inner workings of this strange creature.  I bought my own telescope at the age of 8, and I spent my afternoons wondering how machines worked and reading about science and technology.  And so, I became an artist and philosopher.

The passions that drive art and science are far more alike most people will ever realize.

Biologists learn about the inner workings of creatures because in their hearts they are fascinated by the wonder of life.  They realize that what makes a bee able to fly is truly a fascinating mystery, creative and wonderful.  The astronomer learns about the heavens because he has spent hours staring up into space and pondering the immensity of the universe. The mathematician does what he does for reasons no one can explain.

In a similar way, the musician learns to master the violin because she hears the sounds of a beautiful orchestra and wants to explore the beauty of that creation.  Some artists lose sight of this in their training and become obsessed with the exactness of every note and aural perfection.  These people always end up leaving their instruments behind to gather dust.

This is because at heart, the artist knows that the beauty of music cannot be reduced to single notes and rests.  If it does, music loses its purpose and becomes utterly pointless.  But science often runs headlong into this fallacy, even claiming that it is the very goal.

The biologist, who joins the field out of a passion for exploring life, ends up sitting at a desk and learning about how all of life is just a series of chemical reactions.  The mystery of life is explained away as mere atoms and digital instructions in DNA. Of course, DNA is a fact and it should not be ignored.  But the scientist who loses his wonder in order to understand complex equations governing semi-permeable membranes is no different than a musician who spends all day studying the wavelengths of sound waves.

In his book Planet Narnia, Michael Ward says of C.S. Lewis’ philosophy;

The glory of science is to progress as new facts are discovered to be true, and such progress means that ‘factual truth’ is a provisional human construct.  Which is why the wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in.

The scientist comes to science because of a passion and wonder, and so seeks to explore the inner-workings thereof, but often becomes beaten into passionless recitation of facts until the whole universe is an existential transfer of atoms.  Some scientists find their way back to wonder and beauty.  While the artist, not denying that waves of light and sound form the structure of their craft, refuses to build any bridges over that infinite sea, but to dive into it headfirst and swim.

That is why poets don’t go insane, and  why science will forever be mastered by poetry.

My friend, please don’t forget that you are at heart, a poet.     -Ryan

*My quotation here is more the servant of my purpose, and less a journalistic reporting, thus I took certain liberties in my account.