Monday, October 27, 2008

Mortal soul 6 -- The still small voice

There is a power in nature, restless and terrible -- storm, wildfire, earthquake, tidal wave. There is a delicacy too, to which we attend with a more perceptive eye and ear -- the woolly bear caterpillar in the grass, the red-tailed hawk circling high and silent above the meadow, the six-dotted shadow of the water strider on the bottom of the pond. I think of lines from a poem of Grace Schulman, a poem called In Place of Belief:

...I would eavesdrop, spy,
and keep watch on the chance, however slight,
that the unseen might dazzle into sight.

Listening. Watching. Waiting admidst the clamor of strident certainity for the still small voice. Waiting for the unseen to dazzle into sight. Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science, once wrote, "It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach." Reaching. Groping. Evavesdroping. Four centuries after Galileo, the world is still beset by those who claim access to ultimate sources of knowledge -- divine revelation through tradition, holy books, or prophets. If there is a fundamental way to divide people in the world today it is into those who know and those who grope.

In the southern hemisphere summer of 1848, at age twenty-three, Thomas Huxley was sailing Australian waters as Assistant Surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake. He was head-over-heels in love with a remarkable young women he had met Down Under, and drifting into the skepticism about matters of religion he would later dub "agnosticism." Other than young Henrietta "Nettie" Heathorn, the main thing on his mind was jellyfish, of which he had netted hundreds. As the ship sailed up the Australian coast he worked at sorting out the relationships between his many specimens, and between the jellyfish and other marine organisms. Huxley's biographer Adrian Desmond writes: "Nettie, a sensible girl who liked Schiller and penned love poems, must have asked 'Why jellyfish?' And he must have led her self-importantly from these pulsing 'nastinesses' to the great problem of existence, contrasting the tiny truths of creation with the great sandcastle sophistries for which men were willing to die. The tiny truths were real bricks which would build a palatial foundation to Truth. They were stanzas of Nature's great poem; and only by reciting the ultimate sonnet could we gain a rational set of mores and a real meaning to life."

The tiny truths of creation! Huxley was convinced that we have something to learn about the creation and ourselves by studying the lowliest blobs of protoplasm afloat in the sea. The great truths, if they are to be found, will be discovered in the Book of Nature, as a patient accumulation of individually minute observations. For Huxley, the only knowledge worth having was secular, not theological, and "was not to be delegated by episcopal patrons, but seized by plebeian hands." His jellyfish represented common knowledge -- groping, partial, tentative -- the still small voice, by and for the common man.