Here’s a nice excerpt from Walking, by Henry David Thoreau:
My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot KNOW in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.
At first reading, it may seem to be an argument against Knowing anything but Thoreau declares “insufficiency” of knowledge in the philosophical, not the scientific sense. So, I feel that I can staunchly defend the merits of Science and Knowledge with a video like Science in America from Neil deGrasse Tyson, while nodding along with Thoreau about the importance of imaginatively underestimating how little we understand. That is to say: science is splendidly suited to uncovering truths (statistical significance), completing tasks (move this to there), advancing understanding (how are life and matter shaped), and setting the course of humanity (how should we behave to make sure our descendants don’t die). But if our hubris makes us believe the narrowness of our experimentation accounts for the broadness of the unknown, then we’re just punching buttons on a treadmill. For it is always the imaginative leap of the hypothetical that takes theory, instrumentation, experimentation from one plateau to the next.
Then I would say: science not governed by imagination, but alloyed with it.
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