Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dancing with the daffodils

Take your pick. The Age of Reason or the Romantic Revolution. Laplace or Rousseau. Newton or Goethe. Locke or Liszt. Thinking or feeling. The world out there or the world in here. "It" or "me."

It has to be said, I think, that science owes its success primarily to the first terms of these polarities -- to detached mind in interaction with the world. By design, science leaves little room for the explicit "me." No doubt a lot of "me" goes into the making of science at the highest level, but what is made must stand on its own without the authority or the aura of "me."

Which is what inspired the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, and what drives much anti-science feeling today. We like a world soaked in "me." We like to look into the world and see ourselves, or something very like ourselves. Animism and anthropomorphism are the default philosophies. As Piaget taught us, young children imagine the world operates in the same way they do, consciously, willfully, and why not? What other model do they have to go on?

So children draw smiley faces on crayoned pictures of the Sun and flowers. Adults imagine a god Helios who drives a golden chariot across the sky. There was a time when our ancestors endowed every tree, brook, animal and mountain with a humanlike spirit. Slowly, with the advance of empirical knowing, the naiads, dryads, oreads, nereids, limoniads, potamids, fairies, gnomes, leprechauns, elf children, banshees, hobgoblins, incubi, succubi, and gods of heavenly bodies were banished to the realm of superstition. The crowded pantheons of Greeks and Romans were collapsed into one abstract person, the omniscient, all-powerful Father of the monotheistic faiths (albeit with a retinue of angels and saints). Still, we want to know that what goes on inside -- our very own hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows -- matters, not just to ourselves, but to the universe.

And maybe it does, only not in so consequential a way as we once imagined. Do I really need to believe that an anthropomorphic deity who created the universe has "me" in mind? Might it not be enough to draw into myself my immediate environment, those other creatures, human and otherwise, whose lives I touch and am touched by? Is it not enough to balance the exercise of reason with the romance of here and now?

To have Voltaire and Wordsworth too.