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Reconciliation of Poetry and Science


By: Rifat Raees Khan

Poetry and Science are considered opposite to each other in general. There has always been a battle between the two. Unfortunately, we live in a world that tends to force us to take sides.

Situation gets worse because of the education system that seems to augment the disparity between science and poetry to the remarkable extent, rather than finding ways to reconcile them.  Students are forced to envisage themselves in a particular way that labelled them and put them in distinctive categories for the rest of their academic career. Therefore, they are either identified as the student of science or the humanities.  These disciplines seem poles apart and are thought to offer two entirely opposite perspectives.

The academic division of humanities and science compels one to adhere to one side and rejects the other.  This attitude consequentially yields one-eyed specialists and academics who are completely blinded to the effectiveness of the other side. As the distinguished chemist Peter Atkins expresses in ‘The Limitless Power of Science’:

Although poets may aspire to understanding, their talents are more akin to entertaining self-deception.  They may be able to emphasis delights in the world, but they are deluded if they their admirer believe that their identification of the delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension. Philosophers too I am afraid have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets…… while poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates.  

The question arises it is indeed the fact or truth or these two disciplines, in reality, are the two sides of the same coin. Science and poetry can truly be considered two aspects of our inner selves. 

No matter how convincing Atkins’ statement seems, it does not fit into historical account of events. One of such event is the influence of great philosophic and didactic poem by the Roman poet Lucretius written in the first century BC on the nature of the universe titled as ‘De Rerum Natura’.

The poem elaborate Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. It explores Epicurean physics through poetic language and metaphors and tries to explain the principles of atomism, the nature of the mind and soul, explanations of sensation and thought, the development of the world and its phenomena, and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena.

The dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward forms and inner working of nature…., how many crimes has religion led people to commit.

The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by chance, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities. Literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his popular history book about the poem entitled ‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ traces the impact of the poem on modern science.  The poem not only considered the basis of modern science but it is also considered as the source of anti-religious rhetoric that is still used by later imperialistic and scientists. 

Werner Karl Heisenberg who was a Noble prize winning physicist and one of the key discoverers of quantum mechanics.

 He was a great admirer of Eastern philosophy and pointed out the resembling nature of dogmas of the eastern philosophies and quantum mechanics, in his book ‘Physics and Philosophy’ he states

Modern physics is in some ways extremely near to the doctrines of Heraclitus. If we replace the word ‘fire’ by the word ‘energy’, we can almost repeat his statement word for word from our modern point of view.

He stated after a discussion with Rabindranath Tagore about Indian philosophy:

 ‘Some of the ideas that seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense’

Sigmund Freud the father of modern psychology and psychoanalysis proclaims the edge of poets and philosophers by saying:

The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious.  What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied

 As the poet A. E. Housman suggests that poetry is an effective tool for engaging with the unconscious both as reader and writer, because a poem cannot be read in one way and given a definitive interpretation, but is open to many different readings. In poetry, the ‘tyranny of the intellect’ is held at bay. Sometimes we are augmented by uncertainties and limited by certainties. I think this is what Freud implied when he said that poets and philosophers were the first discoverers of the unconscious.

 The concept of Gaia or the current development of environmental science after the realization that the resources available on earth are not infinite and the planet may deplete its resources, have reawaken a sense that human being have not only the responsibilities to other human being but also to other species and to all living and non-living organisms that surrounds them.

The current Gaian thinking can be considered as a new scientific development of an old concept. The vision behind it is the idea that our planet in some sense is a single organism. Plato called the world a single great living creature and the root of modern environmental science can be traced back in the ancient philosophies.

Similarly, mechanistic fatalism, which claims that conscious effort does not affect the world, have been probably accepted so easily because it has always been propagated in poetry and literature.  These ideas are being depicted in literature without any claim to unravel any universal scientific truth about the law of nature. Thus, these ideas in literature can be said intellectually less ambitious but emotionally more powerful, as well stated by Persian poet Omar Khayyam:

Tis all a chequer- board of nights and days

Where destiny with man for pieces plays

Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays

And one by one back in the closet lays

Modern science has its roots in the work of philosophers and poets. Aggregating the gap between disciplines seem unnatural and unnecessary. To conclude the argument I would point out that after all, a scientist after accomplishing all scientific progress, finally as a human being wants to listen to a good symphony of Mozart or wants to take refuge in the theatre or movie.

The author is a freelance writer and teacher of English Literature

  1. Batool says

    Your argument is so convincing! Poetry has been existing far before science did and managed to hold it’s observations true for so many centuries (it’s descriptions of life and human nature still remain true today, especially Omar Khayyam’s verse <3)!! Though I'll be honest I never really thought about it before reading your article, thank you! Great job!

  2. Batool says

    Your argument is so convincing! Poetry has been existing far before science did and managed to hold it’s observations true for so many centuries (it’s descriptions of life and human nature still remain true today, especially Omar Khayyam’s verse <3)!! Though I'll be honest I never really thought about it before reading your article! Great job!

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