February 12, 2009

Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters

Writing about web page http://www.ox.ac.uk/oxford_debates/hilary_2009_poetry_and_science/mod_intro.html


A fascinating Oxford debate is unfolding online at the website above on the subject 'Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters'. This is a subject close to my heart (and head, as in 'gun to the head'). The moderator, Professor Sally Shuttleworth, opened with the following:

This debate takes place fifty years after C. P. Snow's famous lecture in 1959 on 'The Two Cultures', and the fierce quarrel with the literary critic F. R. Leavis which then ensued. The clash between Snow and Leavis was itself, however, a reprise of the battle in the nineteenth century between T. H. Huxley, that great defender of Darwin, and the poet, Matthew Arnold (to whom we owe the phrase the 'dreaming spires' of Oxford). History keeps repeating itself, and although the terms of the debate shift, there remains an underlying question: how should we educate our young? It is probable that this question is intensified in England because of an education system which until recently forced a stark choice between 'arts' and 'science' at the tender age of 16, thus reinforcing institutionally the notion that there are two separate, and even opposing, cultures or bodies of knowledge.

Much has changed since the 1950s. Scholars now highlight the creativity and imaginative force of science, but also the ways in which it can intersect with, and draw upon, contemporary culture.   Artists and poets are now routinely placed in science departments, working alongside scientists to capture in poetic or artistic form the processes of science. The new Biochemistry building at Oxford is a triumphant expression of this union, with the art of biochemistry captured in the fabric of the building. As we celebrate Darwin's achievements this year, we do well to reflect that the success of the Origin owed much to the rhetoric of its author. Peter Atkins' vision of the grandeur of science draws on the poetry of Darwin's conclusion: 'There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling 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.'

Professor Peter Atkins is proposer for the debate while the excellent Peter McDonald is the opposer.

Proposer. Opposer, Proposer. Opposer. Let’s call the whole thing on.

McDonald argues - elegantly - that:

Science can explain definitively what it sets out to explain; but there is a danger in taking this for the whole picture, and relegating everything else to the realm of the inessential – so that poetry is very nice, perhaps, but not what matters.  Such confidence comes from too much contact with progress. Although the sciences don't really progress in straight lines – ways forward can become dead-ends, and unlikely tangents can turn out to be main routes into new knowledge – in the relatively few years since scientists have called themselves scientists, they have agreed that progress in their fields of knowledge depends on what can be proven: you have to establish something before using it to establish something else. 

Poetry isn't like this. For a start, poetry doesn't progress. What a poem proves is never conclusive, and everything a good poem has to offer isn't revealed at once. The composition of a poem is a leap in the dark, an act of complete imaginative risk. Not experiment, risk: and what is at risk is the language itself, which unsuccessful or dishonest writing debases, and good writing preserves and invigorates. A healthy language, capable of precision and complexity in answering to human expression and experience, and able to bear the weight of its past while bringing responsiveness and self-correcting clarity to bear on the future, matters intensely to any society. 

This should prove a timely and interesting set of statements.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris May

    Fascinating stuff; thanks for bringing it to our attention! I note with interest that both sides appear to concede to their opponents in their opening speech; Prof. Atkins says

    not all poetry doesn’t matter.

    - so we’re agreed that some poetry matters; whilst Dr. McDonald says

    Let’s concede that the bulk of poetry at any time doesn’t matter

    Good. All settled then. When does the pub open?

    I think Prof. Atkins is treading on thin ice when he seems to suggest that scientific proof outranks the kind of proof that poetry provides (I say this as a scientist, if somewhat lapsed!)

    I do not believe that a poem ever proves anything, except its writer’s verbal skill.

    - I look forward to a later exchange when he clarifies in what sense things might be ‘proved’ by a well-established and evidentially supported scientific theory (like, say, Newtonian mechanics).

    It strikes me that the conveners of this debate have (no doubt knowingly!) allowed confusion about what exactly it means to ‘matter’ to provide a great deal of room for maneuver on both sides.

    12 Feb 2009, 16:52

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