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Classical Christian Movement

Science and Poetry

By January 1, 2015January 25th, 2023No Comments

As a youth, I enjoyed poetry as much as any other red-blooded boy. Grade school reading of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss gave way to more complex poems in middle and upper school such as those of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, and Ovid. Outside of school, I ingested poetry almost exclusively through music. Whether the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or The Cure actually count as poetry, they at least aspired to rhyme, meter, intertextuality and occasionally transcendence. Since poetry was a slippery thing to define, these too became models for me. As a musician I began to write songs which needed lyrics— poems I surmised. I wrote my obligatory love ballads, as both the poetry in textbooks and the rock legends I followed suggested that I should. Growing in Christ led me to appreciate the old hymns of the church as well as newer worship songs. I wove these patterns too into the lyrics that I would write.

These habits and observations confirmed for me that poetry, like fine art, had two great aims: God and
girls. It was about the mushy stuff that one couldn’t quite grasp. Poetry was designed to evoke feeling, a form of amusement—a repose from thinking. What poetry was distinctly not about was science. I was good at mathematics and science and so I thought myself well-rounded to be also interested in ‘poetry’. These were two separate realms, akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria.

This vision of reality worked well enough through my college studies of natural and moral science and
my early years of vocation. It was not challenged until seminary when one of my professors noted that an early twentieth century Russian Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, thought differently about art. He held that instead of simply entertaining the masses, artists often led the way in culture. They at times apprehended major cultural shifts before they had begun. For Sorokin, this was true for all levels of art: statuary, painting, music, and architecture, to name a few. Of course this was also true of literature and poetry. I encountered for the first time what I had been habituated to miss. Literature and poetry could be about substantial things, concrete realities as well as the ineffable ones like God and love. Poetry was not mushy, or perhaps reality itself was. Others of my seminary professors reiterated that God could not be circumscribed by logical syllogisms and that love was an essential component to ontology. While I was primed to revision things, I had little sense of what this meant for my reading of Homer or Coleridge.

While I began to enjoy poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Wordsworth more regularly, it was a Ken Myers’ interview with Mary Midgely that caused the scales to fall from my eyes. Midgely, an elder-stateswoman of British philosophy, had written a book entitled Science and Poetry, and the title itself was enough to arrest me, a science teacher. This short interview provided for me the missing link between words, numbers, and reality.1

Consider an example from Alfred Lord Tennyson to illustrate the deep interplay between poetry and science. In the mid 19th century Tennyson wrote In Memoriam. It is a long poem, and for that reason one I would have previously avoided.2 These lines from Canto LVI explore the relationship between God, man, and nature. (Hint: the phrase ‘a thousand types are gone’ in the first paragraph refers to the extinction of species, a topic of fresh concern in the 19th century.)

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone She cries, `A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath: I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair, Such splendid purpose in his eyes, Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies, Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime, Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless! What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.

This poem yields a phrase, “Nature red in tooth and claw,” which perfectly encapsulates Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The poem’s first lines also grapple with the justice of God in letting species go extinct.3 Will man suffer the same fate? Is man like the animals and his ‘spirit does but mean the breath?’ Only through competition and the survival of the fittest can nature continue, a nature as indifferent to man as to any other of her creations. This antagonistic striving seems horrific and ghastly but Darwin encouraged us to remember that it is only ‘natural’. Love is not ‘Creation’s final law.’ As surprising as it is to read such a profound apprehension of the moral significance of Darwin’s vision, it is also surprising to note that Tennyson wrote this nine years prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species and one year before Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ published his first book. As Tennyson’s poem had attained great fame, being lauded even by the Queen of England in 1862, Darwin himself had likely encountered it before penning The Origin of Species.

Men were toying with the idea of evolution and an impersonal nature devoid of God years before Darwin had proposed his mechanism. It seems that a number of people were eager to believe this vision of reality before it had any claim to a ‘scientific’ sense. Many had become convinced of man’s descent from a common ancestor with the animals before Darwin had suggested any manner of how it might occur. Even Herbert Spencer, who argued that he not Darwin was the real inventor of the theory of evolution, had first written of evolution’s moral implications in his 1851 book, Social Statics. This was six years before
he had suggested any technical details for it in his 1857 essay, Progress: Its Law and Cause. Interestingly, Spencer was himself adapting ideas from a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had written an unfinished essay, Theory of Life.

Many believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or some new synthesis arising from it shows that competition and ‘the survival of the fittest’ is a law and the only natural way of conceiving reality. But consider this perspective from The Non-Local Universe published by Oxford University Press, a book about the 20th century developments in natural science.

Darwin made his theory public for the first time in a paper delivered to the Linnaean Society in 1858. The paper begins, “All nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature.” In The Origin of Species, Darwin is more specific about the character of this war: “There must be in every case a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.” All of these assumptions are apparent in Darwin’s definition of natural selection…

[But] During the last three decades, a revolution has occurred in the life sciences that has enlarged the framework for understanding the dynamics of evolution. Fossil research on primeval microbial life, the decoding of DNA, new discoveries about the composition and function of cells, and more careful observation of the behavior of organisms in natural settings have provided a very different view of the terms for survival. In this view, the relationship between the parts, or individual organisms, is often characterized by continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence.4

As it turns out, competition and survival of the fittest do not have the law-like character that Darwin believed they did. Consider the finale to Tennyson’s poem.

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge, under whose command Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did, And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod This planet, was a noble type Appearing ere the times were ripe, That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves, One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

Tennyson chose to believe in the law of love instead
of reducing all to “Nature red in tooth and claw.” The developments of the last thirty years in biology noted above may not provide a final definitive view of nature, but at least these developments help legitimize Tennyson’s choice to believe in a law of love over one of cold competition. They remind us to distinguish Darwin’s mechanism from his metaphysics.

But even Darwin’s mechanism cannot be left wholly untouched by the notion of poetry. For at its base poesy is about words. In the Mars Hill interview referenced above, Mary Midgely pointed out that ‘natural selection’ is itself a metaphor. Darwin and many of his readers were conscious of a device he used that I had missed in all my years of studying biology. Darwin is likening nature to a human animal breeder using ‘artificial selection’. While animal husbandry has an ancient heritage, the English of Darwin’s time would most likely associate animal breeding with the intelligent artificial selection of English dog breeders. Dogs had been bred all over Europe to exhibit an impressive variety of traits. Darwin thus extrapolated from what was done by human intelligence and artifice with dogs. He imagined that nature could do likewise with enough trial and error with all species—even to the point of originating new species. It made no matter that strong cases of this had not been technically ‘observed.’ Dogs are all one species and yet some of Darwin’s technically distinct species of finches interbreed similarly to dogs. Overlooking the difficulty
this poses to defining the concept of species, the metaphor of comparing nature to a human breeder carries much of the weight.5 Detractors of Midgely claim that metaphors
in theories such as Darwin’s are just window-dressing, but Midgely asserts that these devices and metaphors are much more central to scientific theories than most realize. They often determine both formally and informally the direction a theory will take.

This raises the question of the general role of words within scientific theories. Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Peter Medawar noted, for example, that hypotheses themselves are acts of the poetic imagination. Interestingly, he claimed to have gleaned this insight from the poets Shelley and Coleridge.6 Thus, as I teach physics students about Electricity and Magnetism, I now note with greater interest scientific terms themselves like ‘current’ and ‘potential’. These words often have fascinating histories of their own. While it is common for physics teachers to speak of current as the movement of electrons in a wire, the word ‘current’ was used to describe electricity many years before the concept of an electron (Greek for amber) was formulated. Initially, the flow of electricity was simply likened to the flow of a river, a current. The term electric potential (voltage) is intimately linked to the notions of Aristotelian act and potency, old metaphysical concepts which the Inkling, Owen Barfield, claimed held nearly “half the weight of the philosophical thought of the Western mind… between Aristotle and Aquinas.”7 Perhaps words and metaphor are at the heart of many scientific concepts, and this need not compromise the truth of theories. Consider this passage from Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes-how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced
to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.8

This is a beautiful passage full of insight. These ideas unfortunately led Camus to postmodern skepticism. But for those that believe that language itself is deeply connected to reality through Christ the incarnate logos, it need not unsettle our belief in truth. Consider Barfield’s statement from Saving the Appearances, “There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the Incarnation of the Word.”9 Perhaps our belief that truth must provide mathematical certainty is itself a poetic construct and not the only way to understand truth.

Countenancing this hypothesis, let us consider the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and his desire for apodictic certainty. Descartes (and Galileo as well) was wrestling with atomism. This philosophy
was formulated in the fifth century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Democritus. But it was a poem, De Rerum Natura, which transmitted atomistic thought to European culture. This poem, meaning On the Nature of Things, was written by the ancient Roman Lucretius and had been lost to Europe for nigh one thousand years. When rediscovered in the 1400’s, its atheistic and reductionistic assertions caused quite a stir among intellectuals.10 During this period of great religious fervor which at times careened out of control, the picture of an inert reality composed of uncuttable, disinterested atoms bouncing around in empty space attracted many adherents. There is no god, there are no souls, there is no purpose or meaning. Reality is merely atoms in motion in the void and the “highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.”11 Montaigne openly flirted with atheistic atomism in the late 16th century. By the 17th century Galileo and Descartes were explicitly searching for a Christian version of atomism. Once Isaac Newton included atomistic philosophy into his “System of the World,” it became a part of the mechanistic paradigm of modern science. Truth and certainty were then to know the exact positions of the atoms and the laws by which they were governed, for there was nothing more which affected worldly matters. Thus when Napoleon asked the renowned astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace what place God had in his system of planetary motion, Laplace could famously retort “I have no need of that hypothesis.”12

Some of us may feel obliged at this point to say, “OK, well they were right.” But let us conclude with a couple of final thoughts. Modern physicists no longer believe in Democritean atoms or Newtonian corpuscles. Descartes and Galileo followed Lucretius to conceive of reality as composed of tiny hard ‘uncuttable’ pieces of matter, but the ‘atoms’ of Rutherford or Bohr were filled mostly with empty space.13 These ‘atoms’ soon became eminently cuttable into neutrons, electrons and protons. And protons and neutrons are considered in turn to be composed of quarks, which are believed to exist only in groups of two or three. Interestingly, the word quark is a neologism. It comes from a line in a poem by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” The atomism of Descartes which led to the mathematicization of science was a figment of a poem, no more or less ‘absolutely’ true than the bizarrely communal quarks of Murray Gell-Mann. The assumptions that led Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Locke to disenfranchise words and qualities from their rightful place in science have been
long displaced. What lingers is a stultifying scientism. “She blinded me with science,” objected Thomas Dolby before he yielded that science is “poetry in motion.” While many generations before Descartes, and possibly even Francis Bacon himself, might have concurred with Dolby, the dubious rock-poet, this sentiment is mostly relegated
to the postmodern counterculture today.14 Thus it is rare but refreshing to hear thoughts such as the one which Cornell physicist, Carl Sagan, put into the mouth of his leading scientist in the finale of his novel-made-movie Contact. When his heroine, Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Arouet beheld the wonders of the galaxy from her starship, she exclaimed, “They should have sent a poet.”15 Perhaps those of us who are science educators should be training them.