A Tale of Two Bridges

(The Arts and Science go well together. Religion and Science do not.)

In this two hundredth birthday year for Charles Dickens I thought to honour the great man by choosing, as a title for this essay, a variation on the title of one of his most enduring books, A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities of the original were London and Paris and the setting was one of the great transitions of the last few centuries: the French Revolution, an overthrowing of a feudal monarchy of aristocratic and religious privileges and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The effects of this reverberated around Europe and beyond as the ideas of the Enlightenment, equality and inalienable rights, found fertile ground wherever there was inequality and persecution. Dickens, of course, depicted both the plight of the French peasants and the subsequent brutality of the revolutionaries, and used this as a background for the lives of his characters living through these turbulent times, he also portrayed a correspondingly dark picture of the social life in London at that time as his protagonists moved between the two cities.

Seventy-odd years later, another great British author also chose those two cities for his first full-length work, with Down and Out in London and Paris George Orwell depicted the plight of those at the bottom of the social ladder in both cities. Have things changed that much? Well that’s probably a discussion for another time, but with writers like Dickens and Orwell shining a light into the darker areas of society there is always hope that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment will survive and prosper.

It is interesting to note that A Tale of Two Cities was first published (in instalments) in 1859, the same year in which another Charles, that painstakingly dedicated scientist Charles Darwin, published On the Origin of Species, itself a spark for a tremendous transition in the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the world. No longer were we created separately from nature, no longer were we special, we evolved within the world, we were part of it and we were, by definition, animals. Here is George Bernard Shaw writing about the startling effect that this transition had at the time: -

“We had been oppressed by the notion that everything that happened in
the world was the arbitrary personal act of an arbitrary personal god of
dangerously jealous and cruel personal character... The moment we found
that we could do without Shelley’s almighty fiend intellectually, he went
into the gulf that seemed only a dustbin with a suddenness that made our
lives one of the most astonishing periods in history.”

After this initial wave of enthusiasm, however, and the feeling of a weight being lifted from the shoulders of the mind, Shaw began to fathom a sense of nihilism in these ideas (transitions are often difficult and troubling times to live through). He wrote: -

“It seemed such a convenient grave that nobody at first noticed that it was
nothing less than a bottomless pit... when its whole significance dawns on
you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you.”

While still rejecting a personal god, he (like many others at that time) went on to believe in some kind of life force, a spirit and a creative evolution. All this, though, without a shred of evidence, and so belonging to what the scientist Richard Dawkins calls “the argument from personal incredulity”. Darwin himself understood the value of evidence; he knew for instance that if one fossil was found in the wrong strata of rock, say that of a rabbit in Jurassic strata, then his whole theory would come tumbling down. It never has of course.

Shaw was not the first to complain of the sterility of science, Jonathan Swift, for instance (he of Gulliver fame) came squarely down on the side of the arts in a lovely, little satire called The Battle of the Books, sometimes known as The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, published in 1704. This examined the contention that a study of the Greek and Roman classics was a superior enterprise to the study of modern science. The battle of the title is depicted as taking place in a library where a careless librarian had miss-filed many of the books so that the ancients and moderns were mixed up and next to each other on the shelves. Descartes was placed next to Aristotle, Hobbes with Plato and so on. Words start flying and then the characters are soon involved in full scale war with each other.

The battle is temporarily interrupted however, as Swift includes an interlude with a charming dispute between a spider and a bee. The spider is spinning his lonely, intricate web in a dusty corner of a building when a bee flies in and breaks the web, the spider curses him and they get into an argument about which of their lifestyles is more worthwhile. The spider (representing science) says look at my lovely web, it’s a beautiful creation all of my own, and he then accuses the bee (an analogy for someone from the arts) of just borrowing from others, flitting from flower to flower and taking a little bit of nectar from each. The bee responds that the spider is working in the dark and has little awareness of the rest of the world, and that going from flower to flower he can sample the best things from many different places. And it is here that Swift adds to our language: even if you don’t know the story you will know the following phrase. The bee says he uses what he takes from the flowers to make honey and wax (for shining things) and he calls this ‘sweetness and light’. You can see where Swift’s allegiances lie; it’s clearly with the arts. (As is often the way, however, the phrase has, these days, almost reversed its meaning with people using it in a slightly derogatory fashion, as in ‘oh, that’s just sweetness and light’, i.e. something superficial.)

Another famous criticism of science came from Keats with his comment that Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by ‘reducing it to the prismatic colours’. But these criticisms were not all one way by any means. In 1959 the British scientist C. P. Snow delivered that year’s Rede Lecture in Cambridge entitled ‘The Two Cultures’, and its thesis was that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Snow’s talk, later published as a book called The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was hugely influential at the time and widely cited, indeed the phrase ‘two cultures’ also entered our common language. In the talk he complained that those in the arts had little or no understanding of the tremendous advances in understanding the world that came from science and for this he blamed the British educational system which favoured the humanities over science and engineering. By contrast, he said, the German and American systems were doing a much better job of preparing people for living in a scientific age. Here are a couple of quotes from the talk: -

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the
standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who
have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the
illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked
the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was
asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a
work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What
do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of
saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated
would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice
of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the
western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic
ancestors would have had

And so we have a gap opening up, indeed a yawning chasm some would say, but here is where I would disagree. The gap is, I argue, a small one and it can easily be crossed by the first of the two bridges of my title, the bridge of wonder. This is a bridge that can be crossed from both sides, take William Blake’s lovely poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’ which starts: -

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

And then listen to this quote from American astronomer Carolyn Porco: -

Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face
every day is about as meaningful and awe-inspiring as it gets.

Both scientists and non-scientists have this sense of wonder, it’s part of our make-up. Blake knew this very well, here is a later verse from the same poem: -

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Darwin knew it too, evolution is a wonderful idea, and he wrote that “There is grandeur in this view of life”: -

Whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and
most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Scientists do see the world in a grain of sand, they have both imagination and wonder at what they find, but there is nothing to stop them from also enjoying a painting by Turner, a poem by Blake, a Bach partita or Homer’s Odyssey. Likewise, there is nothing to stop someone, who by nature is drawn to the arts and humanities, from gaining inspiration and wonder from the incredible and counter intuitive discoveries of science. Science tells a story that is far more amazing and awe-inspiring than any fiction. In fact that’s exactly what I tried to portray with my recent book, Stardust: Our Cosmic Origins. Aimed at the intelligent, curious lay person, it pulls t ogether the latest scientific finding that relate to our origins, telling a story from the big bang through to evolution on earth and then on to how our minds works. The style of the book is very accessible but most of all it attempts to portray the wonder of science and show that science and the arts go very well together, indeed I start the book with a quotation from Shelley, my favourite poet.

So that was the first bridge of my title, the bridge of wonder. The second bridge is of a very different nature, I call it the bridge of confusion. One bridge is something that joins two places, in the case of the bridge of wonder it joins science and the arts, therefore, for a second bridge there must be a third place, and in this case it is a bridge that many try to construct between science and religion.

Often, religion is identified as part of the arts, probably because a large part of our artistic legacy (art, music and so on) has religious themes. In that scenario you would only need one bridge, presumably the bridge of wonder, but in reality the arts can be secular as well as religious, they are an endeavour based on our inbuilt emotional and creative makeup, a basic expression of our reaction and relationship to the world. Given that the arts (including for instance philosophy) can describe and portray scientific ideas as well as religious ones we must identify religion as a separate enterprise from the arts. Indeed many of our best philosophers and poets from the Enlightenment onwards have rejected religion, François-Marie Voltaire, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hardy to name but a few, the list could go on and on.

Rene Descartes, writing in the seventeenth century just prior to the period known as The Enlightenment, has been described as the 'Father of Modern Philosophy'. He tried to reject that which had gone before and construct philosophy anew from first principles, his starting point being the famous “I think, therefore I am”. While much of what he did was brilliant, especially in the field of mathematics, he never quite succeeded in his main aim because he could not break free of the old idea of the separation of mind and matter, the illusion that there is some sort of non-material spirit inside us, giving life into our material bodies. This dualism of mind and matter that he proposed had a lasting effect, steering most subsequent philosophers in the wrong direction. It was not until the genius Hume that this error in first principles was clearly identified. There is a lovely quote from Bertrand Russell to the effect that ‘Hume took the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley and produced a scepticism that no one could deny but no one could accept’.

It is very easy to fall for the illusion of an internal spirit because that is how it feels to us. We refer to ourselves as ‘I’ as if there was an ‘I’ inside our head looking out through the window of our eyes. Also we refer to our body as ‘my’ body, i.e. it belongs to me, whoever ‘me’ is. If we see someone dead, well the body is still there so the ‘life’ must have left him. This whole idea of a spirit or soul inside us is ingrained into our thinking and our language, and it is strongly championed, of course, by religion. We fall for illusions because it looks that way, take the illusion that the sun goes round the earth, it looks like the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west but science showed that this is an illusion created by the earth spinning on its axis. Likewise science now has much to say on how the brain works and how it generates a ‘mind’, somewhat analogues to say software running on a computer.

One treatise published by Descartes was entitled ‘Passions of the Soul’ and the passions of the title were essentially what we would now call our emotions. Again our language has many references to the spirit or soul of people but these days these expressions are taken much more as analogies or metaphors, used to add emphasis, e.g. ‘that piece of music touched my soul’, where as it is our emotional reaction to things that we are really talking about.

To keep itself relevant, religion often tries to incorporate science, e.g. finally in the year 2000 the Catholic Church apologised for it treatment of Galileo. It hasn’t yet officially accepted evolution although, not wanting to be isolated, many churchmen accept some form of evolution, often with a guiding hand but without, of course, any evidence for that. The great American scientist Stephen Jay Gould (although an atheist himself) proposed that science and religion were two “non-overlapping magisteria” (a magisteria being an area of study). When religion tries to be scientific, however, like the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement in the USA, it falls flat on its face, time and again Intelligent Design has not only been proved incorrect scientifically but it has been thrown out by the courts when its proponents wanted it taught in schools.

The big problem with trying to bridge science and religion is that science is based on evidence and religion on faith. The basic difference between ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ is that we can believe something if we have evidence for it (like evolution or the earth going round the sun) but faith is belief in something without evidence, in fact often in the face of the evidence. Personally I find that an un-defendable position and certainly it is totally incompatible with science. Many attempts to bridge science and religion stem from religion trying to make itself relevant in this age of falling church attendances, but the fact is this just creates confusion, hence the title of my second bridge.

Even if we discount those with an agenda to preserve the church and just consider people searching for truth and meaning in their lives, the attempts to bridge science and religion just reduce religion to a ‘god of the gaps’ concept, and those gaps keep getting smaller all the time. If you really want to understand the world, the ‘scientific method’ is the best tool we have (this is something I expand upon in Stardust).

So, while the bridge of confusion is a doomed construction project, the bridge of wonder between science and the arts is a very worthwhile enterprise, providing both ‘philosophy informed by science’ and stories about the universe that reach out to our emotions with an unbridled awe at the wonders of the natural world. Surely an enterprise Dickens would have approved of: in his day he knew a number of his contemporary scientists and was in fact good friends with another Charles, the scientist Charles Babbage, we also know from another source that his bookshelves contained a copy of ‘On the Origin of Species’. Dickens loved a good story and the bridge of wonder provides just that.

Stephen Welch

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