Saturday, November 26, 2011

Of pumpkins and velvet cushions -- a Saturday reprise

"Art is I; science is We," said the great French physician Claude Bernard.

Which says a lot in six words.

Science is consensus, and because of that it is pretty much confined to the simple. It is no accident that science had its origin in astronomy, describing the motions of mere dots of light across the sky. It took rather longer to bring the experimental method to bear on the human body, say; Bernard was himself a founder of modern experimental medicine. Above all else, science is a way of finding a compelling We. Everyone on the planet is bound together in that We -- though medicine and technology -- even if some of us scorn science or don't know a molecule from a mastodon.

The We is there to put constraints on the I, to rein in megalomania, to short-circuit the divine rights of kings and the infallibility of popes. The We is there because we cannot live in an anarchy of I's.

But every individual life is -- or can be -- a work of art. The I carries us beyond the simplicities of science. Is it not the We that walks the boundary between knowledge and mystery, but the I. Science takes us to the limits of consensus, but only the I can step through the door into infinity.

I pondered these matters the other day after spending a hour-and-a-half outdoors with Professor Mooney and seven students from her environmental ethics class. We did some We-ing. We talked about Frederick Law Olmsted under the curious gaze of tree swallows. We ran our hands across glacial striae and looked at glacial erratic boulders. For an hour-and-a-half we were a We.

But we were also nine I's. On Whale Rock in the deep woods, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we read fragments from Thoreau, who taught us as much as anyone about finding a balance between We and I. He left the woods for as good a reason as he went there, he tells us. He urged us to build castles in the air -- and then take care to give them proper foundations.

(This post originally appeared in the spring of 2007.)