Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a regular webzine of new and unpublished work


Asking questions that you think you know the answers to is how modern science works. In philosophy it is the other way round. Socrates questioned his young men knowing their unpredictable answers would send him back to the questions. He respected the innocence of the more ignorant and inexperienced. Their ideas were likely to be less fixed. He went home refreshed. The scientist is testing the null hypothesis - the proposition is not so - and ticks off the negatives until there is almost nothing left. The philosopher leans towards positivity. Watching the dancing shadows thrown by the fire on the wall of Plato's cave, every so often a confusion of the senses lulls the philosopher to moments of perfect blankness,  which relax him so he can shake off the chains of received ideas that manacle his mind and makes a space in his head to be filled with thoughts that could possibly contribute to the magic lantern show.

Science's process of elimination and philosophy's plenum - the opposite to a vacuum - should serve the same wisdom. But since the Greeks, a theoretical abyss has opened up between them and they scarcely talk to one another. The scientist, claiming that you don't advance knowledge by just thinking about it, closes down the space in his head shared with philosophers, and applies systematic browsing methods to the information stacked around his particular pinpoint, to concentrate and ration time, which is the essence, and always running out. Thus time is put to work to concentrate his mind and to open up the philosopher's space. Freed from experimental purism, he soon realises there is more to accumulating evidence than proof.

The tree of knowledge is rooted in dialectics, equals and opposites, the attraction between negative and positive. The analogy with electrostasis is not gratuitous. The facts are sifted into pluses and minuses, to create the intellectual equivalent of an electrical charge. One which can harness light, or cause a short circuit, or have its power cut ('How suddenly the lights come back', my mother used to say) and carries shock potential, though the provident scientist always wears rubber gloves. The field of charge behind the divining is Montaigne's 'terrible bite of necessity'. It is a moment of meeting, like the two fingers which touch off the spark on Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

The imagination - the mirror of the senses - is still instrumental in discoveries, as are aesthetics and logic. The imagination tends to get carried away, like any two-bit inventor, at the prospect of a patent. But with patience it reins itself in, recognising the reality of the material world must pull up the idea without throwing it. If there is a discovery, a breakthrough, it is likely to have implications for humanity and, therefore, moral consequences. Scientists tend to ignore the ethical dimension. They are pursuing a truth on behalf of the infinite potential of science rather than the truth, a finite benefit for mankind.   

For instance, it is a truth that atoms can produce nuclear power. The truth that matters is that this power has the capacity to destroy life on earth. When the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bombs, it was the military that questioned the inhumanity of dropping them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not the single-minded scientists (Brighter than Ten Thousand Suns, 1957). In the aftermath some had qualms. Their blinkered quest was stopped in its tracks on 6 August 1945, the Feast of the Transfiguration, by a hundred thousand deaths from uncontrolled fission, and a quarter of a million more to come from the fallout (the cancers are still coming). The one-track minds backtracked too late. 'Knowledge in itself is not enough', said Einstein. You don't need to be Einstein to know that.    

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wouldn't go as far as talking about the or a truth, except mathematical ones. The significance of numbers was in their logical consequence, 1+1=2. The same held for qualitative facts. How they added up was what mattered. A scientific discovery changes the goalposts and therefore the game. The change of posts is indubitable - a truth. The game can only be played differently if human progress allows. And this, as an ethical decision, is a matter of controversy, something Russell didn't shy from. The facts of war made him a pacifist and he threw himself into political action. This was the truth of his life.

The world of philosophy did not banish Russell for being jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, or fomenting nuclear disarmament marches when the atomic bomb mushroomed its mutations. But the scientist who breaks ranks and steps out of line is no longer taken seriously. In science a truth wins out, in philosophy it's the truth (the Wise say each philosopher has his own. The Good go for the salient one). But specialising truth like that is an absurdity. In the advancement of knowledge the specific moves towards the general. Plato might say it is the other way round, but there should be room for both, as there is in poetry. There's poetry in everything. Not least in truth.

Few philosophers and scientists are untouched by poetry. Otherwise progress would be impossible. What to do with what you discover - how to make it part of human life - calls for imagination. Once that is established, scientists and philosophers cannot escape some sort of socio-political commitment. Poets as 'legislators' remain, despite Shelley's brave words, 'unacknowledged'. The authority of scientists and philosophers, poetised by the truth into action, is begrudgingly recognised in democratic politics when ordinary people get wind of discoveries that will affect them. What is likely to happen is decided, as usual, by business or 'business as usual'. But that is often short-term. People vote eventually on issues of progress. For instance, global warming. In anticipation business and governments alter their position to retain power.   

It's an irony that Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1950) rather than Peace. His writing, for me, does not aspire beyond clarity of logic. The rage in his polemics is not in its expression. He kept his art for his political maneuvering and his poetry for his activism. The world is not short of failed poets, but there are a few that the world has failed. Russell was one of them. It's not his fault that indubitable change did not progress, ethically or not, into peace on earth. It's not a closed issue yet. Total wars are on the decline, nuclear power has been largely controlled. The final war that will destroy recedes into the distance. It is still there, but wavering.           

In conclusion, the space where scientists, philosophers and poetry meet is political. But it is mostly empty, a void waiting to be filled.  The corner of it which has been occupied in recent history, as mentioned, has been that related to war. In the nuclear age that has included ecological concerns. Now as carbon emissions and consequential climate change is recognised as war by other means, one of planetary survival, future meetings are urgently called for. Since the Post Industrial Global Oligarchy (where politics and big business meet) remains inherently shortsighted, enlightened politicians will need to step in to convene them.  And the Wise and the Good had better forget their differences, or the space, with life, is bound to implode.