Sympathy with Intelligence

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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Alexander Micek

Oh man, and check out one of the final paragraphs of that piece:

We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow east-ward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.

Brief Notes Nearby