Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Awe of Nature, Enhanced by Science

The poet William Blake wrote that, "Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death." I have known some who hold a similar disdain for inquiry and investigation into the significances of life. Mystery and mysticism are good and necessary, they say, and science supposedly dissolves them. Blake penned the line just mentioned in reflection on the theory of optics put forward by Isaac Newton, which he considered a gross inadequacy compared to his idea of 'spiritual vision'. Does a scientific lens truly reduce wonder and inspiration? Does it strip beauty and vandalize mystery?

I was out on my back porch the other day, admiring the butterflies and hummingbirds that occasionally congregate around the vegetation. Over the steps that lead from the deck to the grass, there is a wireframe arch that we've decorated with plant and flower growth. I noticed that under this arch, hanging in empty space, was some object or unlucky insect. As I moved closer, I could see the bright wings of a butterfly. I planned a rescue mission, but further inspection revealed that the wings and a thin veil of a carcass were all that remained.

My initial thought was not sorrow, but wonder. The spider that weaved its web in this manner had cleverly placed it in a spot that was obscured by shade, and also happened to be an area where butterflies routinely passed through on their way to draw nectar from the plants hanging off the sides of the wireframe arch. Years ago, as a Christian, I might have pondered the artistic hand that made such a skilled arachnid. I would have also thought of the puzzling mind of God, that would create animals in constant competition with one another. But that thought would only linger a second, before I'd abandon its implications and reassure myself that God has a plan.

Now, however, I pondered the skills of the arachnid, not as those instilled by a 'benevolent' god, but as a product of progressive adaptation. Spiders have had millions of years to perfect their craft, I thought to myself. They are, along with insects, one of the oldest surviving species. Rather than deprive my mind of wonder and awe, this sudden reflection brought an increased appreciation. To think that these creatures were playing their game of cat and mouse so many centuries before humans even arrived on the scene... was a moment of amazement for me. Then to think we are all distant cousins, originating from single-celled organisms some 3-4 billion years ago... I fail to see how this is not a humbling and fascinating fact to understand.

Science does so much more than just unlock the mysteries of nature, it creates them too. If we were to leave mystery untouched, we would be all the less prevalent in mysteries! Scientists like Galileo unleashed whole new worlds of wonder in studying the telescopic beauty of the night sky and the microscopic beauty of smaller organisms. The discovery of the atom brought a new age of wonder too. Are these not worth marveling over?

There will always be mystery and beauty to be found, no matter how ruthlessly science advances into explaining the unexplained phenomena of the universe. Our time on this earth has been breathtakingly brief when compared to the 14 billion years that our universe has been expanding and changing for. And it is STILL expanding and changing! New sources of mystique and wonder can never be eliminated, because evolution is a never-ending process. Even if we humans run ourselves into extinction, life will go on. It has proven itself very flexible, able to spring up even in the most hostile environments (we call these critters 'extremophiles').

When I look at a brilliant sunset, I feel no emptiness or loss of meaning to think that it is the result of atmospheric gases and light, as opposed to the painting of an artist who can also put vicious storms in the sky that decimate entire cities. In fact, I find it more mysterious to think there is a natural explanation than a supernatural one. Where is the room for deep and honest contemplation in an explanation like 'God did it'? Theists don't generally seem to believe that God will reveal how he did it, and besides, the point of faith is believing that he did it - the how doesn't matter so much.

Science is not the tree of death, it is, more literally than figuratively, the tree of life. But it is also art, and this is woefully overlooked by William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and so many other great poets and philosophers. Science is an expression of all humankind to understand its surroundings, but more importantly, to understand itself. That's not to say that science is subjective or may not reflect reality, but the point is that the desire (or dare I say 'need') to understand ourselves and our environment is as much a form of art as any music, film, or illustration that strives for the same ends.

The tree of death is fear. Fear that will squelch progress and inquisitiveness in the name of prized dogmas or sacred beliefs that are too weak and static to survive change. But change is everywhere and no amount of fear will permanently bring its persistence to a halt. This is why science threatens the absolutist and antiquated values of many people, in my opinion, because it not only changes preconceptions, but it is the study of change. For those clinging to an idealized past, scientific advancement will spell certain doom. Yet a good part of wonder, awe, and beauty is often the unknown, and if change yields anything, it is a new frontier and a fresh new set of possibilities.

This is why I am in awe of nature, and that awe is only enhanced by science.

No comments:

Post a Comment