Can science explain everything? What if there are knowledge black holes where science cannot step beyond without being consumed? This is an eternal question asked by scientists, philosophers and theologians over the centuries. And it deserves to be asked because of its existential significance for us living on this speck of a planet in a vast, vast Universe. Here, I turn to the poets for answers, or hints of an answer because they seem to have that tolerance for ambiguity that I find comforting. I quote once again from the gifted essayist and poet, Mary Oliver, a passage taken from her recent book, Upstream (2016). As always, Oliver writes beautifully and compassionately. Her wisdom is the inspiration of a poem I wrote which I call, “The Other Doors”.
Mary Oliver, from her book, Upstream (2016)
Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now, I think there is only one subject worth my attention, and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world, and within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, though one hopes so. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.
I share the same sentiments as Oliver in her quest for the vivid but unproven. My own response to the limits of demonstrated truths is that as much as they have changed the way we look at the world and as much as they are often useful, they are still partial and therefore, work in progress towards a more singular truth, but one which I am not sure we are privy to. My gut sense is that there are things in the Universe that will forever be outside our grasp. I express these sentiments with the following poem:
THE OTHER DOORS
Mr. Newton –
your calculus is cool
and thank you for showing us
the way to the moon.
But gravity is not apples falling.
Apples don’t fall –
they just roll around
the fabric of space-time.
your scribbles are cool.
But relativity isn’t the whole story.
Gravity’s quantum shyness
has handed this embarrassment of riches –
four forces when only one will do,
just one for a universe this beautiful.
your theory is beautiful
but natural selection by descent
isn’t the whole story, for
the tree of life isn’t always vertical.
Bugs and slugs have figured it out:
how to pilfer genes from
outside the family.
It changes nothing by calling it
‘lateral gene transfer’: gene theft has
messed up your vertical tale.
And now, it has become our problem.
So now I write a kind of poetry
where I do not enter through doors
that lead inward –
to classrooms, textbooks, laboratories,
humongous telescopes, or
another wild ride around
a bigger particle accelerator.
No. My poems will seek
the solace of the stars
hanging silently in their place,
the oracles of the owl
as it floats through the trees,
the thanksgiving of ferns
uncurling to greet a new day.
I will write poems like these
for the comfort of not knowing,
and as a reminder that there are
other doors to other truths,
perhaps a whole lot it –
vivid but unproven.
- The Wikipedia entry on ‘Fundamental Interactions” gives an excellent account of the current state of knowledge on the topic of the four basic forces of nature. It includes a very insightful chart showing the relationships between these forces and the theories that have explained (or yet to explain) their interactions.
- For an excellent discussion of the intriguing phenomenon known as Lateral (Horizontal) Gene Transfer, see this article in Evolution News and Science Today at https://evolutionnews.org/2015/08/horizontal_gene/