Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.

Review: Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC

Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC
Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC by Time-Life Books

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This entire series of books is a great general introduction to the important events, figures, places, etc. of history. I keep a copy of the series in my classroom and at home and frequently use it to teach both my students and my own children. I recommend this entire series for anyone with little historical knowledge who wants a good introduction to the subject as well as for those who desire to make children historically literate.

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Review: Science & Human Values

Science & Human Values
Science & Human Values by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is excellent from opening to finish. The author brings with him a mastery of and a clear love for both the arts and the sciences, bringing the two together and showing us how these two strands of human activity are not separate and in opposition but, rather, have a single source (creativity) and a single goal (the making of truth through experience in the recurring discovery of what it means to be human). This book is excellent reading for all and I believe will be of special interest to those who wish to bring a more “human” approach to their understanding of both art and science. Bronowski’s ideas tie in well with those of, for example, Karl Popper, and make for an interesting comparison. His focus on looking deeper, thinking poetically, and tolerating diversity in explanations of the human experience are especially fascinating points.

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Science as an art

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to tbe right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have seized it, we too have made it for ourselves.

How slipshod by comparison is the notion that either art or science sets out to copy nature. If the task of the painter were to copy for men what they see, the critic could make only a single judgment: either that copy the copy is right or that it is wrong. And if science were a copy of fact, then every theory would be either right or wrong, and would be so for ever. There would be nothing left for us to say but this is so, or is not so. No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers.

Reality is not an exhibit for man’s inspection, labelled ‘Do not touch.’ There are no appearances to be photographed, no experiences to be copied, in which we do not take part. Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her. We re-make nature by the act of discovery, in the poem or in the theorem. And the great poem and the deep theorem are new to every reader, and yet are his own experiences, because he himself re-creates them. They are the marks of unity in variety; and in the instant when the mind seizes this for itself, in art or in science, the heart misses a beat.

Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, pp. 19-20

Review: Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge
Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge by Karl R. Popper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a classic of twentieth century epistemology and the philosophy of science and must-read for anyone interested in those subjects. I also recommend this book for anyone interested in the development of knowledge as well as social justice within a democratic setting. Popper’s thesis is that the truth of any given matter is not obvious due to the limitations of human perception and reasoning and that, with this in mind, we should approach the process of observing and understanding the world around us in a spirit of tolerance, open-mindedness, and perpetual questioning. This book is difficult in parts and assumes a great deal of prior experience with logic as a philosophical discipline as well as with the philosophy of science. It is, however, well worth the challenge even for those who are new to these subjects.

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Augustine, evolution, and exegesis

Following his two principles for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Augustine, in my judgment, succeeded in demythologizing Genesis 1 in the fourth century A.D. The literal, fundamentalist reading of that text and the acceptance of that literal reading as containing the factual truth about God’s creation of the cosmos makes an utter mockery of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by God.

According to Augustine’s understanding of God as a purely spiritual being having eternal (i.e., nontemporal and immutable) existence, Genesis 1 cannot be interpreted as a succession of creative acts performed by God in six temporal days. In Augustine’s view, the creation of all things was instantaneously complete. God created all things at once in their causes. The actualization of the potentialities invested in those original causes is a natural development in the whole span of time.

If Augustine were writing in the twentieth century, he would have called it an evolutionary development. The order of “six days” is not a temporal order but an order of the graduations of being, from lower to higher. In thus interpreting Genesis 1 in the light of twentieth-century knowledge of evolutionary development, Augustine would be following his own two rules for (1) holding on to the truth of Sacred Scripture without wavering, but also (2) holding on to an interpretation of it only if that accords with everything else now known.

Demythologizing Genesis 2 and 3 is more difficult. What Augustine did with Genesis 1, someone must do with Genesis 2 and 3. If they are Christians, they must interpret the story so that it preserves basic Christians beliefs: about the moral state of the human race, a state that requires a redeemer and a savior for the salvation of the soul and the resurrection of the body. The narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 must be read so that its exegesis supports the Christian belief that God, in creating man in his own image, endowed him with free will and, thereby, with the choice between obeying or disobeying God’s commandments.

The story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and of the serpent and Lillith, may be a myth rather than true history, but this does not alter the religious significance that must be found in it when it is properly interpreted in nonnarrative terms. That is the task of the biblical exegete when he attempts to preserve the religious doctrine while removing the mythology. Demythologizing Sacred Scripture calls for profoundly daring biblical exegesis, that dares to be true to the two precepts that Augustine himself followed in demythologizing Genesis 1.

Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, pp. 65-66