Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Three

The Romantic poet Percy Shelley described poetry as "the center and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred." These words sound shocking to modern ears, for they invert the currently accepted hierarchy of knowledge. Most people today probably don't think of poetry as knowledge at all, let alone "the center and circumference of knowledge", and most likely would laugh if anyone suggested that poetry is a superior form of knowledge to science.

Ray Bradbury, that poetic, philosophical science fiction author, has been one of my favorite writers since childhood. In the story "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright", from The Martian Chronicles, the character Spender describes how the noble Martian civilization reconciled the various forms of knowledge:

They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.

Poetry, philosophy, art, religion, science--each of these is a way of knowing. We are trained to think in our modern world that science is either the only valid way of knowing, or that it is at least the most valid way of knowing. But this is a sad misunderstanding. Science is an important way of knowing the world, but it is only one way of knowing it. In order to be well-rounded human beings, we must also know the world through the vehicles of artistic and literary beauty, philosophical contemplation, religious revelation--each of us will choose a different set of sources in which to seek truth and meaning, but the point is that we need something beyond science to provide us with those answers. Science is not in the business of meaning. This is not a criticism of science, it is just a recognition of its nature as a form of human knowledge.

Going along with Shelley and Bradbury, I would say that science tells us facts about the universe, while poetry (or, by extension, any of the other non-scientific ways of knowing) attempts to tell us what it all means. I believe this is what Shelley meant about poetry being the "center and circumference of knowledge". Poetry--historically the vehicle of religious truth expressed in the form of myths--is what interprets reality for us. It takes the raw data and information of science and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, in highly symbolic forms that are the most powerful way of expressing and understanding the deepest truths about the world.

The ancient philosophers understood that philosophy, the "love of wisdom", has its beginning in the sense of wonder. I have often thought of philosophers as being like children in their ability to continually wonder at the world and ask "Why?", even about the simplest and most ordinary things. Grown-ups and non-philosophers are often impatient with such questions, or (in the case of philosophers) think the questions are stupid or pointless. But philosophers are simply seeing the world through the eyes of a child, i.e. with an acute sense of wonder.

Wonder is the sense that the world is marvelous, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating. It is akin to the odd feeling you get when you stare at some ordinary object long enough until it becomes strange to your sight, or think about some quite ordinary concept until it starts to seem quite bizarre. It is the power that makes the scales fall from our blinded eyes and allows us to see the astonishing reality of what has always been there right in front of us. Wonder is a humble attitude toward reality, a recognition that we do not really know what we think we know. Poetry, too, is born in the sense of wonder. So are all the arts. So is religious faith. And yes, science, too, is born in the sense of wonder.

My own childhood sense of wonder compelled me to marvel at the natural world around me, from the subtropical Florida landscape in which I dwelled to the farthest reaches of the cosmos that I could see quite clearly through the magic windows of books, movies, and television. That same sense of wonder compelled me to explore the universe through my own imagination, whether this took the form of drawing pictures, writing stories, or playing astronaut. It later compelled me as a young man to undertake the journey of philosophy, to scale the solitary mountain heights and seek what wisdom I could find there. And, at least at certain sparkling moments when my mind can temporarily escape the cares and concerns of practical existence, this same sense of wonder illuminates the mundane, everyday world in which I move about and reminds me that I am, to my utter amazement and delight, still living in the same magical universe that I remember living in as a child.

"It is good to renew one's wonder," said the philosopher. "Space travel has again made children of us all."

--The Martian Chronicles

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Two

As one who chose to become a philosopher, I have often felt some dismay at the fact that science seems to guard its territory, i.e. the natural and physical world, from incursions by other disciplines. It is as though scientists say, "You poets go over there and sing your songs; you philosophers go that way and speculate; but leave the study of nature to the professionals. We have instruments, calculations, and empirical data, after all. What do you have but pretty words and abstract notions? Your heads are in the clouds, while we soberly examine the real world."

So there.

Ours is a scientistic civilization, which is to say one that affords science with the prestige we used to give religion in terms of providing us with ultimate truth. Scientism is not science but rather a philosophical doctrine which holds that science is the supreme arbiter of truth in everything--including what have traditionally been considered matters of the heart and of the spirit, the answers for which have traditionally been provided by things like religious faith, philosophical wisdom, or literary and artistic works.

This worship of science as the be-all and end-all of human knowledge has created an unnecessary conflict between science and other forms of knowledge in our culture. As a young science lover who also loved to write stories and draw, and who had a religious upbringing, I never understood what the big deal was. Whether or not I actually heard it or read it, I knew instinctively the dictum that "All truth is God's truth." All modes of human knowledge were valid. They did not contradict each other, but rather were complementary, members of a team that worked together toward the common goal of understanding reality. Each member of the team had a different job, and each member was valuable and important in its own way.

It is true that each field of knowledge has its particular domain, its area of expertise and authority. However, the definitions of these boundaries may not always be properly understood. I feel that this is the case with science in today's world. Yes, science studies the natural world. But that does not mean that science provides us with all possible truth about nature, and it does not mean that other disciplines such as philosophy, poetry, and art cannot tell us anything about nature that science cannot tell us.

For it is not enough to say that science studies nature. Science studies nature in a particular way--a scientific way. It observes, records, experiments, verifies, and makes hypotheses and theories about general laws of nature. But is this quantitative approach the only way to study nature or to know anything about it?

I would say no. There is an assumption in our culture that if someone is interested in the wonders of the natural world or the mysteries of the physical universe (as I very much was when I was a boy), that person should study science. Well, science is good--I've made it plain that I have had a lifelong passion for it myself--but it is only part of the picture. Science seeks to approach nature objectively (although many philosophers will point out that it is never truly, completely objective), without reference to any human values. (It can be thought of as the Dragnet approach: "Just the facts, ma'am.") The humanities, on the other hand, are by definition concerned with human values and seek to understand reality in human terms. Why can't the humanities--things like philosophy, poetry, art--seek to understand and know the natural world in their own way? Why can't a poet tell us things about a flower, for instance, that a scientist cannot tell us? The poet speaks a different language than the scientist, and is looking at different aspects of the same thing... but why isn't the poet's knowledge about the flower valued as highly as the scientist's quantitative data? What about the philosopher's musings about the nature of the flower? The artist's vision of the beauty of the flower?

Of course, the reason lies in our ideas about what makes knowledge valid and valuable, and our current bias is toward the practical, the verifiable, the quantifiable. All very useful in the world of business, industry, and technology, but if we (quite unreasonably) accept that this is all there is to life, we find ourselves living in a very dull and drab world indeed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part One

Science was one of my first loves in life. When I wasn't reading books about outer space, the prehistoric past, the arcane secrets of mathematics and physics, or the animals and plants of Florida and the world, I was peering through a telescope at the cold evening stars, or through a microscope at the weird world of incredibly small things, or perhaps experimenting with a chemistry set, examining the organs of the Visible Man, trying to predict the weather by observing cloud and wind patterns, building and launching model rockets, or collecting pet walkingsticks, snails, and Venus flytraps. Even my tastes in fiction, movies, and TV shows reflected my deep and fond attraction toward science, for my favorite genre in each was--what else?--science fiction.

With such solid and impressive science-nerd credentials, no one could accuse me of being unfriendly toward or ignorant about science. When I started college, I was planning to major in Biology, with the idea of perhaps becoming a zoologist and studying animals in the wild. But, after the first day of Philosophy 101, I decided I wanted to be a Philosophy major, and the rest is history. I had already been tentatively exposed to philosophy prior to this, through discussions with my father, so I was already predisposed to an interest in the subject, but upon this more formal introduction, my curious like blossomed into ardent love.

Meanwhile, my passion for my old flame Science, I am sad to say, flagged during my undergrad years. It had already decreased somewhat in intensity during my teens, but around the time I graduated from high school, I experienced a renaissance of my artistic and creative side (which had also been strongly apparent in my childhood in the form of drawing and writing), and I became focused on making music, writing poetry and fiction, and cultivating my newfound fervor for the arts in general. Science during this time, unfortunately, lay all but forgotten in the dust. My interest in science did not begin to recover until around the time I graduated with my philosophy degree, and has continued to grow throughout my adult life until today it has reclaimed its rightful place beside philosophy and literature as one of my primary intellectual passions.

All of this has given me a heightened awareness of the relationships between science, philosophy, and literature, and the ways in which they are alike and different, complementary and sometimes seemingly in conflict.

My current love for science, while in one sense just as pure as in my youth, is in another sense more complicated. For one thing, I see now that there is a distinction to be made between science itself and that which science studies, which is essentially the same thing we call "nature" (in the broadest sense of that term, including the whole universe and all of physical reality). Science is of course one method--in our modern civilization it is the predominant, and seemingly exclusive, method--of studying the natural world. But what I understand now is that it is not necessarily the only way to know and understand the natural world. While I continue to admire and esteem science as an essential human mode of understanding, I am adamantly opposed to scientism--the opinion that science is the only way, or even just a vastly superior way, of attaining knowledge about everything. To truly love and respect this lady Science does not mean putting her up on a pedestal and worshipping her as an idol.

(to be continued)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Once and Future American Classicism

When I worked as the serials librarian at St. Petersburg Public Library, I was in charge of a large collection of periodicals, many of them in old hardbound volumes, spanning a range of time going back to the late 19th century. I undertook an inventory of these periodicals, since the vast collection had never been catalogued and the library needed to know what exactly it had (what we librarians call "intellectual control").

During the course of this inventory (a project which took up many months), I enjoyed glancing through these thick volumes of old magazines, each volume a sort of time machine taking me to a particular moment in the history of American popular culture. As I explored these weighty, dusty volumes with their crumbling, brittle pages, I was struck by the high aesthetic quality of much of the graphic design exhibited in the pages of these old magazines. Particularly in magazine covers, advertisements, or illustrations from the mid-20th century, I admired the simplicity and elegance in these images, whether they were paintings or photographs.

This graceful visual aesthetic, so foreign to the cluttered and gaudy visual culture of our Internet age, is something I see not only in graphic design but also in much of the architecture, furniture, movies, and fashions of roughly the middle third of the last century. This is, of course, what is commonly known today as "midcentury modernism", but what occurred to me as I viewed the wonderful and tasteful images in old magazines such as a 1930s Fortune or a 1950s Collier's is that this midcentury aesthetic is a kind of American Classicism.

When I call it "classicism", I'm deliberately comparing it to the aesthetic culture of ancient Greece and Rome. There have of course been revivals of "classical" aesthetics before, most notably in the Renaissance and later in the Classical Revival of the 18th century. The early American Republic, which consciously modeled itself after the ancient Roman Republic, constructed many of its important public buildings in a modified neoclassical style. But after World War I, and all the more so after World War II, when the United States came of age as a dominant world power, American culture and aesthetics seemed to come into its own as well.

Rather than imitating the style of the Greeks and Romans, it was as if the United States had suddenly discovered its own voice, its own unique style and aesthetic expression. In this way, American modernism was decidedly unclassical, a distinctively modern and forward-looking aesthetic that left the past far behind. However, I came to see that it was fitting to describe this new style as a new kind of classicism. The simplicity, grace, and elegance of this visual culture--interestingly balanced by an energy and movement that the ancient classicisms often lacked in their static grandeur--were simply a new expression of the classical spirit, a new way of formulating these enduring aesthetic ideals in a fast-paced, technology-dominated modern age.

Like the classicism of Greece and Rome, the postwar American aesthetic expressed the highest aspirations of its civilization, a modern civilization of electricity, speed, and the promise of space exploration. Though these qualities may seem uniquely modern, they are just variations of the perennial American values of renewal, freedom, expansiveness, optimism, energy, ambition, progress, and prosperity.

In another sense, of course, this style seems a thing of the past. We find ourselves now in the very future to which midcentury modernism looked forward with such anticipation, but the future is not what we once thought it would be. This is, of course, inevitable because midcentury futurism was a utopian vision, and utopias have a way of never quite becoming reality. What we once might have imagined as the marvelous space-age tomorrowland of 2010 has turned out to be just the same old real world.

But the real world needs ideals, and real life needs dreams. Whatever problems existed in the United States in the mid-20th century--and for those who have forgotten history, there were many--it possessed a wondrous vision of the future that made it seem like, no matter what darkness we were going through at present, a bright and better tomorrow lay ahead. It's true that too much optimism is naive and ultimately leads to bitter disappointment. But a complete lack of hope in the future deadens the soul, of an individual or a nation, and leads to demoralization, defeatism, and despair.

Just as Western civilization once looked to the glorious past of Greece and Rome and was inspired to renew itself, to reach for the future by looking to the past, perhaps the jaded, cynical United States of the 21st century can look back to its glory days in the middle of the 20th and seek once again to attain new heights.