Sunday, August 24, 2008

William Blake, J. S. Bach, and science

This post is in flux. Every time I read William Blake, my whole universe is in flux.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake, opening of Auguries of Innocence

I may open the school year with this. "Heaven" is one of those words that can get science teachers in trouble, though the truly religious parts are "infinity" and "eternity".

It fits the curriculum test--
Descriptive Statement: Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of facts and theories but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live. This standard addresses those skills that are used by scientists as they discover and explain the physical universe-skills that are an essential and ongoing part of learning science.

NJ Core Curriculum Standards

If get called to defend it, I'll call Richard Feynman to the bench. He starts at 0:25. I've been pushing this video on the science staff at our high school (though not terribly successfully):

Science leads to awe.

I am nominally a Methodist, though raised a Catholic. I know the awe felt when the senses are heightened by incense and music, by Communion, by a community's search for something beyond what we can describe.

(Play "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" and I'm ready to worship the sun, the earth, even a freakin' Doritos corn chip.)

My problem with "awe" in the organized religious sense is its artificiality, in the truest sense of the word--awe induced by an act of man.

Not that that's such a bad thing, as long as it ends there. If I want to spend the next 17 years listening to Bach while trembling in a corner wasting away, feeling awe, that's not the worst choice I can make.

Still, it's a construct, a human construct (as is science), based strictly on culture, which science is not. If I use the awe induced by Bach to push an idea outside of man (say, um, God), well, that's hubris.

The great faith in science is that there is order, and in that sense, J.S. Bach reflects that. Science rests on empirical evidence, and try as we may, empirical evidence keeps exceeding our imagination.

The awe in science, though, goes beyond that--the order extends as far as human imagination, faithfully farther. It's why science is so frightening, no matter what kind of faith we have.

Infinity is not comprehensible, but as far as any one of us can go, the order is there.

Reductionism has its place, and no doubt my day is a bit more comfortable because of technology that owes its existence to reductionism, but science ultimately cleaves even the reductionist.

I went clamming yesterday on a tidal flat that stretched a few hundred yards out.

Hundreds of tide pools surrounded me, each with a different story unfolding before the tide swelled in again. I studied this one (a tiny hermit crab chasing one twice its size, perhaps after its borrowed home), I studied that one (a striped fish frantically trying to escape my grasp, burying itself completely in sand).

The stories are happening now, in the dark, a new tide arising.

"God does not play dice with the universe."
Albert Einstein
Einstein's "God"was not a personal God, though there's some confusion on this issue; that's not the point here anyway.

On the tidal flats, in a puddle outside, on your own skin, these stories are happening, an incomprehensible web of life, and if you let yourself observe it, with all your senses (and not through the someone else's eye), you will be overwhelmed.

William Blake got this.
Auguries of Innocence appears paradoxical when read inside, under incandescent light, with no breeze and no sunlight.

Recite Blake outside* on a tidal mud flat in August, and the paradox dissolves. Science is religious in the lower care "r" sense--it acknowledges the mystery while trying to put things together. Not sure I can ask for a better church than the decaying mud on the Delaware bay.

*Wendell Berry uses the same point about reading the Bible--it makes a whole lot more sense reading it outside than it does inside. I'm not going to put my neck on the chopping block here taking a stance on the Bible, but Berry's right as far as he goes here.


John Larkin said...

Michael, a thoughtful post. I believe I know the experience you relate. Thank you for the pointer to the Richard Feynam piece. I have copies of some of his lectures in a book somewhere.
Cheers, John

doyle said...

I need to get a copy of his lectures--a few are available on the web, but I'm old enough to still get visceral pleasure by holding a book (and it travels better).

Still, Feynmann's accent makes his words even more accessible than they already are--his voice is, well, not the stentorian rant of a professor confirming his membership in the Bremen Town Musician Association, where loving the sound of your own voice is the only requirement.