Room with a View|Jan 23, 2011 2:44 PM| by:

Science and Poetry

Book: Science and Poetry; Author: Mary Midgley

“Science and Poetry” is an absorbing work by Mary Midgley, one of the most articulate moral philosophers of our times. With a humble introduction to the book that it is all about ‘who and what we are’, the writer lures the readers on a search for our identity, place and responsibility on the planet.

Midgley begins the first part of the book lamenting on the imposed idea that arts are mere luxuries and science is the intellectual necessity. She questions the imperialistic attitude of science and the strange apartheid that exists between teaching science and literature and a situation, where the students have a very little choice between an inward looking literature and a science that never mentions social attitudes.

She builds upon this argument of academic narrowness to indicate how this theoretical and intellectual fragmentation has led man to believe in isolation, individualism and a corporate culture. Starting with the atomic visions of Greek and Romans, she takes us through the detailed reasoning of why and how the division between the two fields of study has come about.

The explicit discussion on science and poetry in Chapter Three of Part One centers on addressing Richard Dawkins’ writing in his book titled, “Unweaving the Rainbow”. She criticizes Dawkins’ opinion of expecting Keats and Wordsworth to have improved their performance by drawing topics from science rather than classical myth. She says that Keats, Blake and Wordsworth were not underestimating science and that rather they were protesting against the crudity of the Baconian ideology and disastrous childish intoxication with the idea of unlimited power

Part Two of the book focuses on the discussion on how science and philosophy have each on their own, tried to deal with the concept of consciousness.  Drawing our attention to the fact that consciousness contains complex patterns and that it is not just a phenomena, she points out that consciousness cannot be studied without seeing the division of mind and body in a different light.

Asserting that the mind and body are complimentary aspects, she compares human life to an enormous ill-lit aquarium, seen only through various small windows unevenly distributed around it.  Scientific windows are as important as historical windows. The complete aquarium cannot be seen through a single window. Here, her main argument boils down to treating each specialization and its laws as unique for that specialization and avoiding connecting the patterns by trying to force them in to uniformity.

She devotes the final part of the book to introduce and champion the concept of Gaia, originally proposed by James Lovelock. Urging us to reshape our moral horizons repeatedly, the writer leads us to discussions on the responsibilities towards other humans and other earthly beings, and our responsibility towards environment and the whole situation we are in.

Armored with her staunch belief in the Gaian metaphor, she uses this imagery of evolution to aid in widening the way of thinking of ourselves, our consciousness and our surroundings. This gives her a renewed stand to argue against individualism, social contract theory, against Scientific Materialism, and the argument of Social Darwinists on selfishness.

Stressing that life is something that has grown out of earth, she urges us to look at life and survival as an outcome of cooperation. We must think about the long term benefits from the ideas which give a different perspective of life, that take us away from the competitive myths that have colored the human social life and evolution. She urges us to look at ourselves and the world we have made the earth of and points the immediate need for choosing a realistic path, which would be good for the whole system of which our species is an active part.

Mary Midgley gives a lucid presentation of the history and development of science and philosophy and their consistent disagreement on certain principles. She concedes that life and existence cannot be explained through a single discipline and these fields have to be seen as complementary, suggesting diverse visions, rather than being isolated fundamental truths. All the laws and theories of philosophy and science, though they have successfully given us a certain imagery of ourselves and our planet, they are in fact, developed according to the social, intellectual and ethical constraints of the corresponding periods.

Though it may appear that she is drawing a huge generalization by linking the individual identity, the consciousness and the planet in a larger picture, but that’s the point – it’s about seeing the whole picture, about breaking out of our fragmented thought process due to divided academic and social fields of thought. She is recommending a drastic change from an atomic, individualistic vision of us and society, to break out of that conditioning that seems to have pervaded all our actions, imageries, thought process, our systems of education and commerce.

The writer provides a beautiful quotation* from the physicist Richard Feynman, which seems to recap her two hundred pages of discussion in a nutshell.

A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine’….There are things of physics, the twisting liquid which evaporates according to the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? ….There in the wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation….How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts – physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology and so forth – remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, remembering ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it, and forget it all!

Smitha Vasudevan

(Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Reading, Mass., Addison –Wesley Publishing Co.,1963, chapter3, para.7) ( Science and Poetry, page 66)*