“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” – Isaac Newton
It is a common sentiment, among believers in religion and mythologies, that science, reason, and empiricism rob the world of its beauty, wonder, and awe. The English poet and painter, William Blake expressed such a sentiment throughout his life. He declared, “Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death.”
In Blake’s Newton, Isaac Newton is depicted as being misguided, and so entrenched in his work that he overlooks the beauty all around him. Blake accused scientists and philosophers of trying to “unweave the rainbow.”
Popular horror author, Stephen King, expressed a similar sentiment in a 2013 NPR interview in which he said:
If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design.
So, does science indeed remove some of the beauty from our conscious experience? Does understanding how raindrops act like prisms to manipulate sunlight into rainbows take the aesthetic wonder out of such an experience? Does understanding that a sunset is the natural result of the regular revolutions of the earth destroy its power and majesty? Absolutely not. In fact, science is actually the source of anything we might meaningfully call “wonder.”
Much of science operates on a reductionist framework, meaning that science largely attempts to explain observed phenomenon by breaking it down in to simpler phenomenon, and those phenomenon into even simpler ones, etc. William Blake and others have argued that this “breaking down” or “reductionism” takes the wonder out of the phenomena we observe in nature. Blake criticized Newton for attempting to “reduce” the world to mathematical explanations.
“Those of us who do not believe we are divinely created, let alone divinely supervised, are not immune to the idea of awe and beauty and the transcendent.”
But what does it mean to wonder, if we simply satisfy ourselves with surface level observation, conjecture, and manufactured stories about magical sources of the things we observe in nature? What is the point of acknowledging mystery and awe, if we never move to discover more?
Physicist Richard Feynman describes the issue aptly:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
Feynman on the appreciation of beauty and wonder. | Video Credit: Reid Gower
Indeed, those of us who reject the supernatural certainly aren’t cold to awe and wonder. I would suggest that it’s just the opposite. As we continue to discover more and more about the workings of the cosmos, the cosmos reveal more questions to us. In hindsight, William Blake’s sentiments toward Newtonian gravity seem incredibly ironic, when we consider the corners of the universe that knowledge has allowed us to access. Newton’s raw mathematics have laid the necessary foundation for almost all of our discoveries about space; for Einstein’s theories of relativity, and have allowed us to access the cosmos in a way that William Blake could never have dreamed of.
In March 2004, The European Space Agency launched a probe, known as Rosetta, on a route to a comet known only as 67P. Ten and a half years later, in a process that could only be described as a “miracle” were it not for our understanding of mathematics and gravity, the probe met up with the comet. This required several carefully calculated “gravitational kicks” using the orbits of the sun, mars, and the earth multiple times. Our understanding of the laws of physics literally opened the door to a new place in the cosmos….and has done so numerous other times.
Socrates embraced the idea, later propagated by the late Christopher Hitchens, that the mark of a truly educated person is that he recognizes how little he knows. Indeed, as science provides us with answers, it also progressively provides us with a framework for asking more questions…and what is wonder, if not the propensity to sincerely ask and seek answers to questions?
Of discovery and awe, Hitchens said:
If you want to be awe inspired, ladies and gentlemen, and let me say, let me just tell you that those of us who do not believe we are divinely created, let alone divinely supervised, are not immune to the idea of awe and beauty and the transcendent. Let me invite you to look for a moment at the pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. Some of you may have done it. If you haven’t done it now, or yet, do it soon.
The extraordinary revelations of swirling yet somehow beautiful, new galaxies in color and depth and majesty, like nothing, I think, the human eye has ever seen. Turn away from that if you wish, and gaze at a burning bush, in an illiterate desert part of the Middle East, and say that that’s where revelation comes from. I don’t believe you’d be able to do it.
“Turn away from that if you wish…” – Hitchens | Video Credit: WFLAtheism
In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argues that scientific discovery is really a source of spirituality:
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
To suggest that science neuters beauty, destroys wonder, or makes awe impotent is to embrace a profoundly simple and ignorant view of science.d 19th Century activist and freethinker Joseph Lewis asked, “Is it not better to place a question mark upon a problem while seeking an answer than to put the label “God” there and consider the matter solved?” It is not mythology, dogma, or ignorance that fosters wonder among humanity, it is science, empiricism, and discovery. Indeed, science does not destroy wonder. Science is the source of much of the beauty, wonder, awe, and mystery that our cosmos has to offer us. To wonder means nothing if we do not foster curiosity and seek the answers to the mysteries that the universe has in store.
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard Feynman
- The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
- The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton
- Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens by Christopher Hitchens