The Haiku and the Double Helix
The Changing Global Order: World Leaders Reflect "illumines the human prospect as few works of its kind do," the eminent Cambridge political historian Ralph Buultjens wrote of NPQ's last collection in the Boston Review of Books. But he also properly identified one shortcoming: a lack of coverage of the biosciences "that will surely shape the world to come." For a variety of reasons, NPQ's many pieces over the years on science didn't fit into the geo-cultural and geo-political framework of that project. This special issue serves as a corrective to that shortcoming.
The role of the scientific imagination in shaping the world to come is today uncertain as the great leaps forward, especially in information technology and genetics, have revived old doubts and raised new fears about the human condition under the regime of reason. As the Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann has noted, science is under attack both from religious extremists on the right who argue stem-cell research violates the sanctity of life as well as from "post-intelligent intellectuals" of the academic left who view science not as the discovery of objective reality through observation, but as a "social construction."
At the same time, new paradigms pose the possibility of a reconciliation between the humanities and hard science, perhaps even a new convergence of humankind and technology. Reconciliation begins by engaging the deepest level of critique.
The late poet and Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, often voiced his concern that the modern scientific worldview had excommunicated from society the reverence for being at the core of all traditional religions. For Milosz, this has been at the root of so much suffering ever since.
"The scientific revolution has been gradually eroding the religious imagination," Milosz wrote in NPQ in 1995. "First came the Copernican blow toppling the central position of the Earth, and then Newton introduced the idea of eternal space and eternal time stretching infinitely. A new cosmology has been victoriously replacing the old one based upon the privileged place of man who was created by God and saved by that very resemblance, i.e. through the Incarnation.
"The new cosmology somehow dissolved man into the immensity of the galaxies, where he became merely a speck arrogantly assigning himself an exceptional role. For Descartes, animals were living machines; thus the barrier between them and humans, endowed with an immortal soul, was still maintained. To abolish that barrier the theory of evolution was needed, and the Church immediately sensed the danger of Darwin.
"As the difference between the 'lower' species and man became blurred, grave questions of moral order appeared. If all life is submitted to certain laws, among them the law of survival of the fittest, then the tears of moralists and humanitarians are of no avail. It is possible that the crime of genocide characteristic of the 20th century was a side effect of viewing man as a biological entity no less expendable than the myriad of live entities squandered every second by Nature.
"If man is just a speck in the universe, like a bacteria, what does he matter in the scheme of things? Such a view corresponds to the kind of mass killings we've seen in the last century. To kill a million or two million, or 10, what does it matter? This is something completely different from a vision of the world before Copernicus, where man was of central importance."
Milosz' views reflected the uncompromising division between spirit and matter, culture and nature, object and subject that characterized classical science, with its mechanistic insistence on linear causality and predetermined outcomes based on immutable, impersonal laws of nature.
In the 21st century, the scientific imagination is well on its way to healing this rift. The late Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine has demonstrated that creativity in nature leads, through infinite bifurcations or decision points, to an unforetold plurality of possibilities, not a predestined fate, for man or molecule. There are objective laws and structures, to be sure, but there is also choice. Those choices, in society and nature, affect outcomes in complex interactions within ever-changing structures in which everything is related to everything else. For Prigogine, the utopian dreams of humans are thus an input in our future, not an incidental element.
Piet Hut's "mindful science," at once an anthropocentric and ecological proposition, brings reverence for being back into the equation by "dissolving identities" to reveal the deep unity of man and nature. Peter Sloterdijk advances further, telling us to heed Teilhard de Chardin's call to "commit to our mutation" and recognize that the information age has bound us into one co-intelligent operative system with each other, with nature through genetic knowledge, and with our own tools through cybernetic feedback. In his vision, culture and nature, object and subject, spirit and matter are not only reconciled, but fusing into a new being—"anthropo-technology."
Milosz had some foresight on this: "The transformation I sense in the 21st century," he said once in an interview, "will restore in some way the anthropocentric vision of the universe. Maybe we will realize we've been on the wrong train. Goethe had an intuition that something was going wrong, that science should not be separated from poetry, the mindful reverence for being. Blake also. Maybe we are going to return to a very rich era where poetry is once again alongside science."
Milosz would be happy to see the haiku and the double helix coming together again in mindful science.