Allan Powell: Can poets enhance the findings of scientists?

September 30, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Richard Dawkins might properly be ranked as the most prolific, gifted and colorful writer in explaining the workings of science to the reading public. In “Unweaving The Rainbow,” Dawkins is at his best educating the public about the nature of science with emphasis on evolutionary biology and a deliberate attempt to awaken each reader to the poetic wonder of the awesome universe.

Science is not, according to Dawkins, a pessimistic, fatalistic unraveling of nature by soulless investigators. A more complete description requires the influx of poetry to bring life, color and a deeply felt mystery into any fully covered description of our cosmos.

It becomes clear why Dawkins is so dedicated to this task when it is realized that he holds a very prestigious position — Professor of the Public Understanding of Science — at Oxford University. He is intellectually and temperamentally the right person to tackle a task that has such an improbable chance for success. We are prone to enjoy light but lack the curiosity to study this elusive thrust of energy. We enjoy the comfort of heat but are uninterested in the study of thermodynamics.

More importantly, we have a virtual love affair with technology and gadgetry but little appreciation (even hostility) to the theoretical underpinning of the sciences. No matter, nature is indifferent to our assessments of its operations. Both nature and science are value free and function without reference to praise or blame.

There is a modest concern on my part that it might be a mistaken effort for Dawkins to campaign to promote a poetic-scientific liaison. The awesome order and power of nature is not diminished by human inspection and interpretation. We are not “Unweaving The Rainbow” when we search for the physical basis of its colors. Nature will relentlessly fulfill the demands of the laws of nature regardless of how we feel about it.

There should be an understanding that, in nature, there are simultaneous “up” sides and “down” sides consequent to the operation of natural laws. Those who are repelled at such statements as “nature is red in blood and claw,” might reflect on the fact that this same process — natural selection — has resulted in the production of a brain three times larger than our hominid progenitors. This permits us to exercise the uniquely human capacity to experience subtle moral distinctions; reason about our place in the universe and develop standards of truth.

There are others who are disenchanted with science because of the ultimate fatalism implied in the second law of thermodynamics that declares that matter and energy can only be changed in one direction — from usable to unusable, from available to unavailable and from ordered to a disordered state. This is tantamount to asserting that the universe began with an orderly system but will end in chaos. It is difficult to get a metaphysical up-surge or a rosy weltanschauung after a look at the second law of thermodynamics.

Then we remember the first law of thermodynamics, and things take on a brighter hue. According to this first pillar of science, the total amount of energy and matter in the universe is constant and cannot be created or destroyed. This law gives confidence in the permanency of the basic fabric of the universe. The notion of “law” applied to nature makes science and predictability of its behavior possible. Any claims made are then verifiable or falsifiable.  

There might be a legitimate case for being puzzled at the need for a plea about a more prominent place for poetic imagery in the world of science. Respect and reverence is dependent on the temperament and understanding of informed people who appreciate the role of science. Liking science is similar to liking buttermilk — it is an acquired taste. Science appeals to our capacity to be objective; poetry appeals to our capacity to deal with our subjective experiences.

In the end, science is a tool in the hands of a craftsman. The craftsman, however, must always be the agent in charge of the use of the tools. These tools (attitudes, methods and assumptions) make it possible to progressively filter out fact from fiction and ideology. Citizens in a democracy must accept the responsibility to understand and rationally use the awesome gift of science — with or without the poetic adornments.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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