Thursday, 8 November 2012

Knowledge and the Soul

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

Plato (a really long time ago)

I am furious at being entangled in a confounded philosophy which my mind cannot refrain from approving and my heart from denying.

Diderot (not quite so long ago)

Adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine are, it is true, not words many people are familiar with, and yet we are all familiar, so very familiar, with their manifestation in the physical realm. They are (obviously enough to those who study them) foundational elements within the structure of the DNA double-helix– technically known as nucleotides - helping to maintain the stability of the helix and thus, we might say, the stability of life forms themselves. Linking arms across the divide that separates one DNA strand from another, adenine hangs on to thymine, while cytosine clings obdurately to guanine, and together they are but one necessary part of a complex of chemicals which are the basis of life. Ensconced within the spiralling strands of DNA, they are both beautiful and wondrous, and it takes but a moment’s contemplation to feel awe in the face of such exquisite complexity.

But it is not given to everyone, it seems, to feel this sense of awe, to observe the beauty and the wonder of our world and its chemical constituents. Many are those for whom, so it appears, the world of atoms and elements, chemicals and compounds, and, at the other end of the scale, the vastnesses of space, do not inspire any sense of the majesty of existence. Instead such observers are left indifferent, or uninspired or, even worse, dismayed that the mysteries of existence should be thus explained in such seemingly prosaic and phlegmatic ways. Rejecting science as, at best, simply one alternative way of knowing among many (where no alternative can claim pre-eminence), or, at worst, a manifestation of the West’s ceaseless pursuit of hegemony in the world, such observers turn instead to other explanations of their world. Many and varied are these competing ideas, but they are united in their rejection of science as a way of knowing and their advocacy of systems of thought which emphasise the mysterious and the magical, the spiritual and the metaphysical. They seek transcendence out of the quotidian and into the realm of angels, a transcendence, they believe, that science cannot bequeath.
But let me return to my four nucleotides, to adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine. I should not wish to give the impression, misleading as it would be, that somehow these four are, in the scheme of life, more important or significant or monumental than any of the other numerous chemical elements which form the basis of life. I have picked them in a somewhat haphazard and random fashion, and I might have chosen any of the multitudinous chemicals of which we are constituted to illustrate the point, to shine a small light on the utterly and bewilderingly magical nature of our existence. Indeed, that is perhaps the essence of this seemingly miraculous thing we call life, the intricate weaving of such a multitude of strands, so very many parts which must all be present, which must all function in their own fashion, if life is itself to function at all. And perhaps, further, we might here discern a possible explanation for the resistance of so many to the evidence of our senses, to the knowledge we have gained, as to how it is that life comes to be. Those things beyond our ordinary comprehension, we prefer to keep in darkness; if the road we must travel is too difficult, it is better not to attempt the journey, but instead to remain looking out from our lonely hilltop to that point in the distance whose magnificence we are content to dream of without every really knowing it. If the sheer complexity of existence as science has thus far shown it to be overwhelms us, if the numbers are too large and the parts are too small, the distances too vast and the length of time too immense, then it is better, seemingly, not to know at all, but instead to turn away and to place in the stead of knowledge myths and stories of our own devising which, because we are the artificers of them, we can comprehend.
But perhaps, too, the poetic sensibility struggles against and resists the insistent demands of science, the seemingly arid and joyless discipline of rational inquiry. This is the view which gained such currency as the Age of Enlightenment (that is, of reason) gave way to the Age of Revolution, the view of William Blake who believed that ‘a robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage’, the view, indeed, of Goethe’s Mephistopheles:
When scholars study a thing they strive
To kill it first, if it's alive;
Then they have the parts and they've lost the whole,
For the link that's missing was the living soul.

Thus, does not science destroy in order to dissect, thereby dismembering and disfiguring what was once beautiful, sublime? In subjecting life and the universe to the cold and disinterested movement of our reason, do we not lose something precious, a sense of awe and mystery, of profundity and significance, without which we stand bare and defenceless on the precipice of existence? Does it not, we might say, leave us with nothing in our hands with which to fend off the dreaded realisation that we exist merely because we do? It is impossible, we think, that the ‘I’ of whom I am constantly and always aware exists only by chance. It is impossible that this ‘I’ should ever cease to exist. I know myself as eternal and all encompassing, and anything which might undermine this must be rejected, disbarred and prohibited as a threat to the order of existence.
So the thinking might go, but such thinking is misguided, callow. Such thinking does not see that we can know the same thing in many ways and from different vantage points. The technical knowledge of science, the knowledge of numbers and signs and symbols, does not preclude at the same time another kind of knowledge of the phenomena of life, the sort of knowledge which is not necessarily expressed in words but is understood and perceived by the intuition, the sort of knowledge which is experienced rather than known, felt rather than comprehended. That I know the sun to be a mass of roiling gasses, a constant chain of fusion reactions converting hydrogen into helium and producing a surface temperature in the order of 5,505°C in no way diminishes my capacity for being enthralled by a majestic sunset or soothed by the feeling of the sun’s warmth on my skin. With Kant, my mind is indeed filled ‘with ever new and increasing wonder and awe’ by the starry heavens above me, wonder and awe that is only augmented by my knowledge of the vastness of space and the distances that separate us from the twinkling lights (and, further, by the knowledge that the vastness is so very great that I cannot, in the end, comprehend it, but must make do with simply knowing that the vastness will escape any feeble human attempt at capturing it in the mind’s eye – such knowledge makes us humble). And if we look backwards through the lens of life at the tiniest constituent parts of life itself, at chemicals and their bonds, my knowledge that water requires the happy conjunction of two hydrogen atoms to one of oxygen cannot deplete the sheer human pleasure I feel when my burning thirst is quenched by water gathered from a cool, mountain stream.
In the face of the edict to know ourselves, why is it that so many persist in not knowing themselves, in deliberately obscuring their own vision of how the world is? Why this desire to remain in ignorance? We are, in the final analysis, nothing more than a magnificent concatenation of chemicals, a miraculous enough occurrence of base elements united in myriad ways, nothing more, and yet surely this is more than enough to satisfy the demand for wonder. If we let our minds explore into the tiniest corners of our universe, and up and into the widest expanses of space, how can we not feel anything but transcendence, that sense of being part of something so very wondrous? ‘There is grandeur,’ Darwin famously observed,‘in this view of life’, and so there is.


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