Monday, February 02, 2009

Law and mystery -- Part 2

Law and mystery: The twin pillars of scientific creativity. On the one hand, reliable empirical knowledge of the world. On the other, a depth of unknowing that inspires curiosity, reverence, awe.

Many years ago, as a young faculty member at Stonehill College, I had a column in the student newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." That was 40 years ago, and the phrase might still be a fitting epigraph for my life.

In Honey From Stone, I first used the image of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. I subsequently discovered that the metaphor had been used by others, including such admired personages as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Huxley. The substance of the island, in the understanding of Priestley and Huxley, is knowledge painstakingly extracted from nature by reproducible observation -- empirical knowledge, the spoor of law.

Be skeptical, Huxley especially would urge, of knowledge that depends for its pedigree upon revelation, authority or tradition. Be skeptical even of scientific knowledge, knowing that our grasp of law is always partial and tentative. Never lose sight of the fact that in a universe that is effectively, if not actually, infinite, our island of reliable knowledge but a patch on the unreachable horizons of our ignorance.

There are stolid souls who choose to hunker down on the high ground of knowledge, and there are blithe spirits who throw reliable knowledge aside to swim far out into the sea of mystery. I am a creature of the shore, one foot firmly fixed in law, one in mystery, reveling in what science reveals about the world, knowing that every broadening of the island extends the shoreline where we encounter what we do not know -- always skeptical, endlessly astonished.