Science is poetic? A debate

Here’s a video I found entertaining and thought provoking–a scientist, a poet, and a philosopher discuss the intersection (or if there is an intersection) between poetics and science.

This debate hinges on a Richard Dawkins statement: “Science is poetic, ought to be poetic and has much to learn from poets.”

The home site is the Institute of Art and Ideas, which is also worth exploring a bit.

Poetic Theories: Can scientists learn from poets?

Ken Binmore, Mary Midgley, Ruth Padel.

What is your take-away from the discussion? I’m curious about which stance seems most convincing, though I suspect one’s fundamental opinion on such topics isn’t easy to change.

4 comments on “Science is poetic? A debate

  1. Ian Williams says:

    I wrote an essay titled “poets can see the spheres” in which I put forward the idea that poets, through their more facile access to their subconscious, were able to bring forth concepts and ideas which lesser mortals could not develop until more “ground work” had been done. As a method I used a concept from the book Flatlanders. These people live only in two dimensions and have no concept of a third. Thus when a sphere enters their world they see a point that becomes an ever increasing and then ever decreasing circle until it vanishes. Most of us are Flatlanders. Journey men scientists toil away, building upon each other’s ideas and observations until one says what if there existed a third dimension? That would explain these points and circles and their mysterious waxing and waning. If the idea is incremental we say that’s very good, wish I’d thought of that but I can see how you got there. Occasionally you get Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Liebnitz etc etc. these people were poets, they made leaps to spheres before the rest of us even thought much about them. So it is with great poetry. An emotion is articulated, a concept made manifest by the invisible force of metaphor and the meaning of juxtaposed words which the rest of us could not imagine until the poet did it. Poets, like scientists, access their subconscious where all answers lie and bring them forth for the rest of us. They make manifest Wordsworth’s invisible force that causes the world to move in one society.

    So, yes, I do believe poetry and science influence each other, for at their acme they are one and the same.

    I thought the scientist on the panel was poor, he did not address the issue and was quite inarticulate. Pradel was very good and quite right. A good book which addresses much of her arguments is “metaphors we live by”.


    • Yes, the “scientist” was actually a mathematician, and he wasn’t particularly facile with language. The reading I’ve been doing on consciousness intersects very vividly with math and science…and I recall my delight at reading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe; even though I have no chemistry background and am not versed in boolean systems, through Kauffman’s book I found myself able to enjoy the rich coalescing of chemical, physical, biological, spiritual, and poetic concepts.

      I love your Flatlands analogy, the leaps to the spheres. And I’ll have to put Pradel on my reading list.

      When I put up this post I had to repress the urge to write, “A scientist, a philosopher, and a poet walk into a bar…” 🙂


  2. KM Huber says:

    I concur with the above two comments, both of which are elegant and cogent. I have never understood just why science and poetry are so often considered exclusive of one another, which is not to say that I am not aware of those viewpoints.

    At present, I am re-reading Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” having always enjoyed Phaedrus. As I listened to each of the video presenters, I could not help but imagine Phaedrus’ reaction, especially to the mathematician.

    Thanks for posting the video, an interesting website all around.



    • Oh, I recall enjoying that book very much. I read it long ago, about the time I was discovering Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki!

      “The truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s humdrum life, a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness, into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.” (Suzuki)


Comments are closed.