Poetry Contra Science
"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy.
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven;
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnoméd mine,
Unweave a rainbow."
Singh, by the way, was writing about why we were not more proactive in promoting the teaching of science in schools - which means, more or less, why we weren't more proactive in overcoming children's resistance when confronted with the prospect of having to learn it. His argument was that understanding something through science enhances our appreciation of that thing, which, at best is only partially true. As Keats's poem implies, understanding simply places phenomena in "the dull catalogue of common things". Necessary perhaps for our prehensile grasp of the world for purposes of manipulation, but, I suspect, for moving beyond understanding (finding categories to fit things into), something called imagination is needed.
Don't get me wrong. I am not prejudiced against science. It's good to know things. Science helps us solve practical problems - and it also tells us something about the universe we inhabit. My favourite subject at school was biology and, when I eventually went to university, I infinitely preferred Earth-Science, which was one of my optional subjects, to English Literature and Philosophy. It was also much more beneficial for my poetry since it provided me with a fresh stock of images. Not only that, but I have found inspiration for poetry in scientific-fields like quantum mechanics, for exactly the same reason. It helps replenish a depleted stock of images and ideas - which studying literature most emphatically does not. Cross-fertilisation, you see. What I don't buy however is the idea that science is the royal road to something called The Truth - at least in the sense Oedipus would have understood it, that is to say, as a form of painful knowledge at the expense of a much more painless belief. (What I'm talking about here is the kind of experienced and suffered truth which art at its most profound deals with, not just the 'truth' of the intellect.) Not only that, but Dawkins somehow believes that he has the divine right to tell artists and musicians their business. I'll skip over the bit in The God Delusion where he talks about Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel and the Museum of Science and just cut to the chase with his remarks about Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. "How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony or Mozart's opera, The Expanding Universe. And what a shame that we are deprived of Haydn's Evolution Oratorio." What could be more crass? I mean, can you really imagine the cosmological equivalent of Don Giovanni descending into hell against a background of a chorus of dinosaurs or pulsars? He is obviously taking a swipe at the way artists have turned to religious themes for inspiration. But Dawkins is missing something very important here, and that is that if religion has been able to inspire artists in this way, it is because gods are anthropomorphic, whereas, expanding universes are not. Gods therefore inhabit the same imaginative cosmos as we do and are a kind of continuation of ourselves in a way which is not true of the external physical universe. And this is the point. Gods, oracles, witches, ghosts, angels, pixies, fairies, dryads and other supernatural phenomena are internal; nature is external. The four-dimensional domain which Richard Dawkins is so keen to see represented in art, music and poetry is a world which is fundamentally alien to us in the way these supernatural beings are not. That external realm can only be internalised through representation; and representation is not what art is about. Through art, we create what we already have a profound, if inchoate, affinity with. And we don't represent it so much as secrete it. It isn't copied from nature but is produced out of ourselves, as a result of our affinity with it.
I do not want to say that the arts and the sciences should (or could) be completely divorced from each other. Obviously, they will impact on each other. Scientists often get a grip on their subject through metaphors like the "Big Bang", which, despite all the fuss, must have been a very silent event. (Now, apparently, some scientists are saying that the Big Bang didn't happen, that their equations were all wrong.) Artists, poets et cetera, may return the complement by borrowing images from science and employing them as metaphors, or integrating them into art's shifts of metonymic perspective. But while admitting the possibility of such cross-fertilisation, we should never forget that science deals with an abstract, external and alien domain, while art is fundamentally concrete and sensuous and deals with an internal reality. It is no accident, for example, that Tom Scott's poem, The Tree, is not a success. This is not because Tom Scott was an incompetent poet; he certainly wasn't; it has much more to do with its subject-matter. It is a poem about evolution, and the only time the poem comes to life is when it gets pantheistic - that is to say when he abandons his external perspective and projects his own subjectivity onto his subject-matter - a big no-no in science, of course - and treats the natural world as continuous with himself. (We really do need to deconstruct our notions of subject and object and stop talking so crassly as if they were somehow separate phenomena.)
When I read poems like Wallace Stevens's Burghers of Petty Death, and lines like "an imperium of quiet, / In which a wasted figure, with an instrument / Propounds blank final music." - I am confronted with a mystery about life and death which science never confronts me with, except in the most superficial of ways. I have to stand still and listen to the questions such poems raise inside my own silent self without being able to answer them. This is not the case with questions concerning the first three minutes after the Big Bang, or why natural selection makes a cheetah run as fast as it does, because the answers to those questions are obvious once you begin to think about them in relation to the evidence which has been accumulated and the rational methods for working them out. When Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio, (Notice how "ratio" is part of "Horatio".) Richard Dawkins reply is to say that in time everything will be known and there will be no mysteries left. That presupposes that all the important questions are scientific questions and that the quest for truth is primarily intellectual, rather than existential. Truth is ultimately not intellectual. Nor is it just about external phenomena reduced to their 'constituent parts'. The real truth is the kind that makes you want to blind yourself like Oedipus because your eyes were the cause of your being blind to the truth in the first place. Science does not deal with that kind of truth at all; it deals with facts. It deals with what Nietzsche called "solvable problems". The intellect, which is science's medium, does exactly what Keats says it does in the above quoted poem - it reduces phenomena to a "dull catalogue of common things" by making them measurable. And I think that the sooner we get on the outside of that and learn to digest it, the less deluded we'll be.