Still We Sing: Reflections on the Limits of Scientific Knowledge

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 alike 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.

When science cannot open any more doors, we turn to the arts, in particular to consolation of words. We turn to writers and poets for answers, or at least hints of an answer because they seem to have that tolerance for ambiguity that we find comforting. Below, I quote a passage from Upstream (2016) by the gifted essayist and poet, Mary Oliver, who as usual, writes beautifully and compassionately. Her wisdom is the inspiration of a poem I wrote which I titled, “The Other Doors”.

Excerpts from Upstream (2016) by Mary Oliver

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.

‘The Other Doors’ by Wallace Fong

Mr. Newton – your calculus is cool
and thank you for showing us the way
to the moon. But gravity is not a force,
but apples rolling around the fabric
of space and time.

Mr. Einstein, your equations are cool.
But relativity isn’t the whole story.
From the standoff between gravity and
quantum epsilons, we inherit this
embarrassment of riches – four forces when
only one will do.

Mr. Darwin, your theory is beautiful, but
natural selection isn’t the whole story and
the tree of life isn’t a tree. Bugs and slugs
have figured it out: how to share genes
with others not of their own kind. It changes
nothing by calling it lateral gene transfer;
it has messed up our theories.

So now I write a different kind of poetry, where I
do not enter the door of certitude, where I
seek the solace of the stars, the oracles of the
owl as it floats through the trees, the instincts of
ferns uncurling to greet a new day. I write in the
comfort of not knowing all that I yearn to know.
I write with the queasy admission that there are
other doors to other truths, perhaps a whole lot
of it, vivid and unprovable.

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