View from
The Left

On Literary Science and the Bounds of Knowledge

But philistinism is not limited to the arts. I believe that those who cannot appreciate the wondrous beauty of the real world as revealed by science are philistines, too.”

The Literature of Science

Philistinism is a word typically used to describe people who do not care for (or even despise) the arts. Perhaps the best-known philistine is Charles Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind, who, in the 1854 novel Hard Times, cares only for cold hard facts and numbers. “Fact, fact, fact!” cries Gradgrind in agreement with some official who tells a young girl that “You are never to fancy.” The Gradgrinds of the world care not a whit for Shakespeare (or Dickens, for that matter) or any other such frivolous nonsense. There are only facts, and that is the end of it.

But philistinism is not limited to the arts. I believe that those who cannot appreciate the wondrous beauty of the real world as revealed by science are philistines, too. Those who fail to thrill at Shakespeare and those who cannot shudder at the cosmos or the simple intricacies of evolutionary theory are equably pitiable (in both senses of the word). 

Let me clear up a possible misconception. Gradgrind might be a fundamentalist for facts, but this is most emphatically not the same thing as championing science, properly understood. Science is not a collection of facts but, rather, a quest of discovery, where all conclusions are provisional and where great mysteries always remain to be solved. And the world it reveals is nothing short of marvellous, from the Cosmic Microwave Background that is the afterglow of the creation of the universe itself to our ancestors’ more than four-billion-year evolutionary battle for survival and reproduction through earth, water, air, and fire—a battle which resulted in nothing more and nothing less than each and every single one of us. 

Art and science differ in many ways, of course. Science is not fiction, and it is beholden to reason and experiment. However, science and fiction share the same core: They both result from a desire to discover the truth (variously interpreted—perhaps a broader term, the real, is more applicable here). They both inspire awe. They are both poetic, in the sense of evoking the sublime. And creative genius is the main ingredient of the great works of both. They are, to me, the two greatest achievements of humanity. A Gradgrind could recite the periodic table from heart, but he could never understand the true allure of science. 

All too often, however, science is seen as a Gradgrindian enterprise: a cold, bare, dispiriting subject, an enterprise geared only toward dispelling magic. Partially this is the result of the failure of scientists to communicate, but I think it is much more the fault of literary and artistic philistines who sneer at science as somehow below them, as something mundane. In my (of course anecdotal and thus inconclusive) observations, scientists are as likely as anyone to appreciate great art, while many of the people one might describe as among the literati are proudly ignorant of science. 

Happily, however, there are many who bridge this gap. In my view, for example, Richard Dawkins is not just one of the great scientists and science communicators of our time but also one of its great literary artists, too. He has brilliantly argued for, and exquisitely evoked, the poetic beauty of science—or The Magic of Reality, as one of his book titles has it.

In the introduction to his 2017 essay collection Science in the Soul, Dawkins defends his use of words such as “soul” and “spiritual”:

“[I]t is in [the] sense of [Einstein’s phrase] ‘a deeply religious nonbeliever’ that I consider myself a spiritual person, and it is in this sense that I unapologetically use ‘soul’ in the title of this book.

Science is both wonderful and necessary. Wonderful for the soul—in contemplation, say, of deep space and deep time from the rim of the grand canyon. But also necessary: for society, for our well-being, for our short-term and long-term future.”

Dawkins there and elsewhere extols what he has variously called “literary science” and “the literature of science.” Discussing what he means by the latter in his 2021 collection Books Do Furnish A Life, he defines it thus: “[S]cience as literature, good writing on the theme of science.” He goes on to write:

“The occasional purple passage is justified by the romance of science—the unimaginable scale of the expanding universe, the stately majesty of geological deep time, the complexity of a living cell, coral reef or tropical rainforest. [For example,] [t]he natural-history prose poetry of a Loren Eiseley or Lewis Thomas, the cosmic reveries of Carl Sagan, the prophetic sagacity of Jacob Bronowski…

[But overall] [s]cience doesn’t need languaging-up to make it poetic. The poetry is in the subject matter: reality. It only needs clarity and honesty to convey it to the reader and, with a little extra effort, to deliver that authentic tingling up the spine which is sometimes thought the prerogative of art, music, poetry, ‘great’ literature in the conventional sense.”

In that anthology, Dawkins celebrates the literary brilliance of others, but he himself must be considered one of the (if not simply the) foremost literary scientists alive, as a glance at any of his books will swiftly demonstrate. Allow me to give one particularly soaring example. Here is the opening passage of the first chapter of Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins’s 1998 book-length defense of science as “the poetry of reality”:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

(Unweaving the Rainbow also, incidentally, shows Dawkins’s great knowledge of and deep appreciation for poetry, including poetry from that most unscientific of literary genres, Romanticism. I have never understood why he is often thought of as some mirthless, killjoy scientist when his writing is so warm.)

Unweaving the Rainbow is my favorite of Dawkins’s books because it is, in the end, an argument for science and poetry to once more stand together in celebration of truth and beauty. There simply need not be a huge chasm between the two—Dawkins cites James Thomson’s lovely 1727 poem in honor of the recently deceased Isaac Newton as an example of a time when such enmity was not so strong (the title of Dawkins’s book is taken from Keats, who accused Newton of ruining the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it). At the end of Unweaving the Rainbow, he puts it thus: “A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing.”

And, on the other side of the divide, there are great artists who have dealt with scientific subjects, too. This does not mean, or does not just mean, science fiction writers. Plenty of them are hacks, though often very enjoyable hacks. It means artists who consider science seriously in their art. This includes some science fiction writers (Adrian Tchaikovsky is one contemporary such) but also literary artists more generally. One of the most exciting of these is the neuroscientist and novelist Erik Hoel, whose 2021 novel The Revelations is a thrilling exploration of the mysteries of consciousness. Hoel has cited Herman Melville to the effect that a mighty work demands a mighty theme. For Hoel, there is no more epic theme than science—and the science of consciousness in particular. 

So, when anyone complains about the coldness of science—and they often do, usually with reference to the nigh-meaningless bogey word “scientism”—recommend some of the writers mentioned above and they will be swiftly disabused. Only philistines and fools dismiss art—and science. The aesthetic and spiritual beauty of science is paralleled only by the greatest works of art. To repeat: Those who cannot see this deserve our pity as well as our scorn. 

The Known Unknowns

A very recent example of literary science is Lawrence Krauss’s new book The Known Unknowns: The Unsolved Mysteries of the Cosmos (for some reason its American title is, much less evocatively, The Edge of Knowledge). Krauss’s project here is to show how far science has come—and how far it has yet to go. We have learned a great deal over the past few centuries, including enough to know just what we do not know. Krauss’s subject is these known unknowns across physics, biology, and neuroscience/consciousness studies, and he delineates all of this with a deft touch. Like Dawkins, he can explain extremely complex topics to laypersons while evoking a spine-tingling sense of grandeur and beauty. 

For example, he nicely describes life as a sort of “controlled burning” in the context of discussing homeostasis. And he writes, while considering the possibility of a multiverse, that:

“[I]t is of some solace that even as some universes may be in the final stages of their evolution, with stars dying out and any remnant forms of life disappearing, other universes are continually being born. Hope springs eternal in an eternally inflating multiverse.”

As Philip Pullman has argued about Dawkins’s style of phrasemaking, the fact that the last sentence above is utterly unnecessary is what marks it as literary. It adds a certain beauty and humour to the passage, while not really explaining anything. It is just enjoyable because of its rhythm and cadence and meaning. (Shades of Oscar Wilde’s “all art is quite useless,” perhaps?) Pullman’s other explanations for why Dawkins is such a delight to read (beyond the innately interesting subject matter) also apply to Krauss: There is a real sense of personality in this book, and he tells good stories about science. 

Indeed, the entire multiverse passage cited above is an unnecessary reflection. A Gradgrind would simply have told the facts and left it there (and perhaps would not even have considered the possibility of a multiverse in the first place, so indirect is the current evidence and so speculative is the current reasoning for it). Indeed, a Gradgrind would never have bothered about the known unknowns at all because they are, by definition, not facts. 

That is why science, properly understood, is not a species of Gradgrindian philistinism but, instead, a subject of beauty in and of itself. Krauss’s very premise is that the world of science is wonderful and mysterious. It is not a utilitarian collection of facts but a most exciting enterprise. And the questions it has answered and seeks to answer are the fundamental questions about life, the universe, and everything: the very stuff of great art. 

Science supersedes much of the metaphysical and religious speculation that has come before, as Krauss argues in language that will no doubt earn him some hate mail. For example, discussing the end of all things, he refers to the concept of eschatology, which, “[o]riginally a domain of theology, like all good ideas, it moved into science.” In his chapter on consciousness too, he argues that the prevalence of philosophers in discussions of consciousness is proof that the field is in its infancy, for it is only after the philosophers have helped to clarify questions and concepts that a field really takes off as a full-fledged science. This, Krauss is careful to note, is not in the slightest a dismissal of philosophy—quite the opposite, in fact (though I would add, among other things, that the philosophical perspective can still play a part in even the most developed of sciences—vide, for instance, Daniel Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which is an enlightening and radical re-examination of evolutionary theory). Still, I can already hear from afar the gnashing and wailing that usually precede cries of “SCIENTISM!”

Most of all, as that curt nod to theology suggests, Krauss neatly dispenses with the supernatural. God really is the last refuge of the bewildered, the citadel of human ignorance, pushed back and back until there is not much space (or time) left for Him. It takes a leap not of faith but of bravery to say: No, we will not rely upon the supernatural just because we do not yet fully understand the origin of the universe. Instead, we will keep at it until we do. That all the evidence points ultimately to a completely naturalistic universe (or multiverse) should not be a cause for fear, for it means that ultimate explanations—rather than magical invocations—are possible. (And, of course, should science be proven wrong in its dismissal of the supernatural, it will happily correct itself.)

And what could be more wonderful, in the end, than that everything is explicable in this way? Time, space, matter, life, consciousness—all natural, all emerging from what we may as well call nothing and all fully comprehensible in naturalistic terms. What a story! And what a quest it is to seek understanding of it all. Krauss has brilliantly told the story of this quest so far and has shown us some glimpses of where it may yet take us. 

Apocrypha and Other Criticisms

It would be betraying the spirits of both literary criticism and science to end without making a few criticisms, however. 

First, and least importantly, the review copy in my possession has a few glaring typos. Not many, not enough to matter, but still occasionally jarring. One of these, however, is quite amusing, and that is the real reason I bring up typos at all. Discussing the future collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, he says this “may sound apocryphal”—the last word there should, of course, be “apocalyptic.”

Second, though Krauss overall manages to explicate the topics he discusses, I still found myself sometimes flummoxed by the physics chapters. Perhaps that is due to my own limitations, or perhaps it is just in the nature of the subject, or perhaps Krauss is simply so close to the physics that he sometimes assumes too much of the reader. His chapters on life and consciousness were entirely cogent, perhaps because he is not an expert in those areas and so has to explain them more as a layperson. But let me emphasize that this flummoxing on my part was only occasional. On the whole, Krauss lucidly and accessibly explains even the toughest bits of physics.

Third, I was disappointed that the chapter on life barely mentioned Darwinian evolution. Krauss justifies this by arguing that a physicist’s-eye perspective on life at an abstract level need take little notice of the details of evolution on a single planet, which is true enough. But in doing so, he misses a fascinating argument of Dawkins’s, to the effect that Darwinism is quite possibly a universal law—which is to say that life, especially complex, adaptive life, wherever it is found in the universe, can evolve only by some kind of Darwinian natural selection, regardless of the details of particular environments, biochemistries, and so on. The full argument can be found in Science in the Soul, so I will not go into it here, but I lament the loss of reading what Krauss might have had to say about such an idea. 

Finally, Krauss’s treatment of artificial intelligence (AI) also slightly disappointed. He thinks that machines may well one day become self-aware and discusses the possibilities of how such a leap would affect us. But, for me at least, he does not take the dangers of AI seriously enough. Perhaps it is because he is focusing on consciousness here, but he misses the point that whether or not machines become conscious is almost irrelevant: What matters is how intelligent they could become. 

If they become superintelligent, then we are inviting ourselves to go the way of all of our human cousins—Neanderthals and the rest—who simply could not keep up with us. Worse, a superintelligent artificial general intelligence would be orders of magnitude beyond any kind of intelligence we have ever known. And its mind, if we can call it that, would be utterly, utterly alien to us. With these stakes, I do not think it wise to leave the development of AI to unaccountable corporations pursuing only profit. Even if the risk is very low, the stakes are high enough that we should at the very least introduce some stringent regulation on AI development. (My thoughts on this are more or less taken from Erik Hoel, who has written several pieces on his Substack about the dangers of AI.) 

There Is Grandeur in this View of Life

The above criticisms are, in the end, quibbling. The Known Unknowns is an excellent guide to the furthest outposts of human knowledge on the fundamental questions, illuminating and inspiring in equal measure. Mostly, it excites, because it shows just how much is still waiting to be discovered. 

And it is a humbling book, too, just as science is humbling; it celebrates our achievements while fully accepting—actually, embracing—our current limitations. “We don’t know” are “three of the most important words in science,” Krauss writes at the outset. Whenever someone gripes that science is arrogant and cold, recommend a copy of this book, which will show that person that science is neither—in other words, that it is not falsely modest about its great achievements but that it is also the humblest of human endeavors in the deference that it shows to, and the glee with which it greets, the unknowns. Most of all, Krauss shows that there is grandeur in this view of life—and perhaps that, in essence, is the true mark of great literary science.

Daniel James Sharp is an independent writer. He is Deputy Editor of Areo Magazine and has contributed to outlets such as Quillette, the Washington Examiner, and Free Inquiry. He lives in Fife, Scotland and is currently working on a book about Christopher Hitchens for Pitchstone Publishing. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.