Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth: The Poetry of Science
Some time ago, the first graders I work with sat down to an interesting exercise of observation. At each table, we had placed a variety of objects ranging from sun-glasses to bouncy balls to legos. Their charge was to look at each object first as a poet, and then as a scientist –recording their findings on a labeled table. The little poets found things to be colorful, shiny, smooth, like a flower, like a firetruck. The scientists found them to be objects of certain purposes, certain lengths and widths and masses. I was thinking, as I watched the children scribble down their notes, that Plato must be rolling over in his grave. He would certainly not approve of this, I thought –these children at their desks simultaneously learning to become poets and scientists. Then I wondered, what if he is right? What if we are, by muddling hot emotion with cold reason, dooming ourselves to progress into an irreconcilably false future?
In The Republic, Plato sees poetry as something dangerous. Poet’s (and all artists) in his mind, merely imitate the world, and are therefore far removed from the Truth of it. These imitations come in the decorated form of poems –of words masterfully stitched together, words emotionally loaded, words metrically pleasing. Because of the pleasure one feels upon reading or hearing a well-crafted poem, the poet is able to convince the listener that he is an authority on the matter at hand for “such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have.” Believing these imitations corrupts the mind and places yet more distance between the person and the truth. Poetry “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.” Because poetry is beautifully and dangerously misleading, there is no room for poets, or art at all, in Plato’s perfect society. He proposes a society that favors reason, one as far removed from the instability of human emotion as possible.
This is disturbing, but it is also, to a certain extent, valid. Emotions do often corrupt. An excited emotional state, whatever the emotion may be, lends itself to faulty observations and rash conclusions. If, as Plato seems to think, we are first and foremost seeking the Truth, then emotions are indeed an obstacle, and poets, musicians, and artists are all masquerading as truth-seekers when in fact they are unwitting devils, lying and leading us all astray from the one important path.
Accepting this, of course, means that you must accept that ‘perfect science’ is devoid of emotion, other than perhaps the pleasure of success and the frustration of failure. One would have to accept that the perfect scientist is one who does not feel, but only looks and finds and reports.
I can see this being valuable in many ways. Namely, the scientist who looks without any emotional investment or emotionally loaded expectations is more likely to find what is simply ‘there,’ whereas an emotionally invested scientist might be so eager to find that which he hopes to find that the data –whatever it truly represents –is skewed beneath the influence of the emotion. And, I suppose, as science often seems to ‘catch-up’ with our intuitive speculation, we must wonder if we are not sometimes only finding what we want to find; if perhaps, because of age-old narratives and beliefs, we are catering in some slight way to our emotional expectations and hopes of what the universe should look like, rather than what it does look like. Regardless of what the matter is, the heartless scientist would surely have a functional value in the scientific community. If not as an innovator, then as a gatherer, calculator, and reporter.
On the other hand, however, this scientist –since he has no emotional investment in the work at hand –is not privileged by the emotional human drive to acquire what he seeks. We constantly hear physicists talking about the beauty of equations, some of them saying that they know certain equations they find are true not only because they are tested, but because they are beautiful. What does it mean to be a beautiful equation or a beautiful scientific theory? There are many answers. I will offer one.
The beauty of a scientific ‘truth’ lies in an interplay between its simplicity and its power to explain. Simplicity alone cannot define the beauty, for there are very simple explanations for things that have absolutely no explanatory power. David Deutsch, in his book titled The Fabric of Reality, speaks about this in terms of the heliocentric theory of the solar system versus the Inquisition’s contending theory. The first explains, among many other things, the retrograde motion of the planets by placing the sun at the center of solar system. The latter proposes that the earth is indeed at the center, and that the planets only appear to move as if the sun was at the center, but it is not truly at the center. The simplest explanation, at the time, was the Inquisition’s; it stood in line with beliefs that had been validated for years. The heliocentric theory offered a more complex model, which did, in the end, despite its increased complexity, prove to have more explanatory power. It was a beautiful discovery.
So, when scientists pursue truths, they are, in my opinion, pursuing beauty. They have looked at the world and perceived a disconnect or a need. They have seen something that either lacks an explanation, or begs a different one. They perceive complexity and attempt to simplify it rationally. Raw chaos is not beautiful to the scientist, (nor the blank page to the poet); explainable, organized chaos is what they favor. They want to explain the universe with an informed grace –describe it in simple, effective terms.
This poetless world of cold choice and heartless scientists leaves no room for extraneous exploration, no room for creativity at all, and yet it is extraneous exploration and creativity that have given way to so much –perhaps even all –of our forward progress. Plato’s perfect society does not allow for a human being to be driven by passion into the unknown in the hopes of discovering beauty, as defined above, but rather proposes that the man must, divorced from creativity, come to new explanations. I do not believe it can be so. A scientist who finds particle physics to be a profoundly moving field of study is much more likely to frantically push at the fringes of the science in search of the pleasure of discovering something beautiful. A scientist of a creative disposition is much more likely to look at what is not there and imagine what could possibly be there. Shackled by cold reason, the imagination of the scientist is stifled, the speculation of the scientist is inhibited, and, consequently, the results of the scientist’s exploration reflect a crippled range of what they might have otherwise been.
Creative speculation is at the heart of the generation of new explanations. Speculation without a creative element does not allow for any new information at all. You repeat experiment A and get result B a thousand times. Without an element of creativity, the scientist could never viably propose that through experiment A, we might actually get result C. Result C may be of little consequence. Result C may also place the sun at the center of the solar system as opposed to the earth. The heartless scientist is but an echo of what is already known. The creative scientist is the forerunner of what is not.
The poet and the scientist are not so different, I think, as Plato may have thought. Surely they are both after that one impossible Truth. Surely they are both driven by emotions into a world full of enigma’s and disconnects and needs with the desire to explain, simplify, familiarize, or defamiliarize. Surely it is the goal of each to make the world outside of the human mind, better reflect the world within it. They are bridges, both of them –invaluable bridges –spanning across the threshold of what is known and what is not so that we may hear their findings and bask in the beauty of them. So, I don’t think the perfect society is without its poets. I think that the perfect society is full of men and women who have not inhibited their minds by emphasizing one path over the other. It is a world of poet-scientists who are moved by what they see and driven by their tumultuous emotions into oblivion where they work tirelessly to reconcile it into something that humankind can look upon with understanding, awe, and ultimately –pleasure.