Back From Chaos

Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity.

FOR those who thus feared science as Faustian rather than Promethean, the Enlightenment program posed a grave threat to spiritual freedom -- even to life itself. What is the answer to such a threat? Revolt! Return to natural man, reassert the primacy of individual imagination and confidence in immortality. Find an escape to a higher realm through art; promote a Romantic revolution. In 1807 William Wordsworth, in words typical of the movement then spreading over Europe, evoked the aura of a primal and serene existence beyond reason's grasp.

Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

With Wordworth's "breathings for incommunicable powers" the eyes close, the mind soars, the inverse square distance law of gravity falls away. The spirit enters another reality, beyond the reach of weight and measure. If the constraining universe of matter and energy cannot be denied, at least it can be ignored with splendid contempt. Beyond question, Wordsworth and his fellow English Romantic poets of the first half of the nineteenth century conjured works of great beauty. They spoke truths in another tongue, and guided the arts still further from the sciences.

Romanticism also flowered in philosophy, where it placed a premium on rebellion, spontaneity, intense emotion, and heroic vision. Searching for aspirations available only to the heart, its practitioners dreamed of mankind as part of boundless nature. Rousseau, although often listed as an Enlightenment philosophe, was actually the founder and most extreme visionary of the Romantic philosophical movement. To him, learning and social order were the enemies of humanity. In works from 1750 (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts) to 1762 (Emile) he extolled the "sleep of reason." His utopia is a minimalist state in which people abandon books and other accouterments of intellect in order to cultivate good health and enjoyment of the senses. Humanity, Rousseau claimed, was originally a race of noble savages in a peaceful state of nature, and was later corrupted by civilization -- and by scholarship. Religion, marriage, law, and government are deceptions created by the powerful for their own selfish ends. The price paid by the common man for this high-level chicanery is vice and unhappiness.

Where Rousseau invented a stunningly inaccurate form of anthropology, the German Romantics, led by Goethe, Hegel, Herder, and Schelling, set out to reinsert metaphysics into science and philosophy. The product, Naturphilosophie, was a hybrid of sentiment, mysticism, and quasi-scientific hypothesis. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, pre-eminent among its expositors, wanted most of all to be a great scientist. He placed that ambition above literature, to which he became an immortal contributor. His respect for science as an idea, an approach to tangible reality, was unreserved, and he understood its basic tenets. Analysis and synthesis, he liked to say, should alternate as naturally as breathing in and breathing out. At the same time, he was critical of the mathematical abstractions of Newtonian science, thinking physics far too ambitious in its goal of explaining the universe.

Goethe can easily be forgiven. After all, he had a noble purpose -- nothing less than the coupling of the soul of the humanities to the engine of science. He would have grieved had he foreseen history's verdict: great poet, poor scientist. He failed in his synthesis through lack of what is today called the scientist's instinct -- not to mention the necessary technical skills. Calculus baffled him, and some said he could not tell a lark from a sparrow. But he loved nature in a profoundly spiritual way. One must cultivate a close, deep feeling for Nature, he proclaimed. "She loves illusion. She shrouds man in mist, and she spurs him toward the light. Those who will not partake of her illusions she punishes as a tyrant would punish. Those who accept her illusions she presses to her heart. To love her is the only way to approach her." In the philosophers' empyrean, I imagine, Bacon has long since lectured Goethe on the idols of the mind. Newton will have lost patience immediately.

Friedrich Schelling, the leading philosopher of the German Romantics, attempted to immobilize the scientific Prometheus not with poetry but with reason. He proposed a cosmic unity of all things, beyond the understanding of man. Facts by themselves can never be more than partial truths. Those we perceive are only fragments of the universal flux. Nature, Schelling concluded, is alive -- a creative spirit that unites knower and known, progressing through greater and greater understanding and feeling toward an eventual state of complete self-realization.

In America, German philosophical Romanticism was mirrored in New England Transcendentalism, whose most celebrated adherents were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalists were radical individualists who rejected the overwhelmingly commercial nature of American society that came to prevail during the Jacksonian era. They envisioned a spiritual universe built entirely within their personal ethos. They were nevertheless more congenial to science than their European counterparts -- witness the many accurate natural-history observations in Faith in a Seed and other writings by Thoreau.

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