Saturday, July 21, 2012

Still brilliant after all these years: Jacob Bronowski

"All those who imagine take parts of the universe which have no been connected hitherto and enlarge the total connectivity of the universe by showing them to be connected."—J. Bronowski

A note to a friend in which I quoted from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the book and TV series from the '70s, led me to look up more about the man himself, which took me to a series of Yale lectures from 1967 entitled The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. It's a library copy, but I may need to purchase the book so I can return to it, so packed is it with insight. In its relative directness yet density of ideas, it resembles Blake, a fitting comparison, since Bronowski was a Blake scholar and refers to him throughout this text.

Bronowski's aim, he announces, is to pursue what Kant started before, as he sees it, Kant was derailed; to wit, he wants to construct a philosophy that takes into account the limitation of human senses. Focusing (no pun intended) on human eyesight (and roping notions of imagination and "insight" into the equation), Bronowski examines how everything we perceive is, rather than directly experienced, interpreted. We know in part, and what partial data we receive, we form into something meaningful. Bronowski moves from there into examining how science itself is an interpretive, imaginative act. Contra the notion of a "theory of everything," Bronowski thinks we can only have theories of particular segments of the universe; in fact, there is no one equation nor one scientific idea that can encompass everything. In this, science is like art, always have limitations, a frame, into which some things, but not all things, can fit.

Bronowski also argues that science itself doesn't teach us how to be good humans, but the act of doing science in the way it's supposed to be done—always saying, "This is the truth as far as I can tell," being humble, sharing information, engaged in dialogue, knowing you can never have a final answer—is itself a model for an ethical existence.

I'd like to know how a scientist of today's generation would read this book. The situation Bronowski describes in the scientific community doesn't seem like what presently exists, though ideally it would. And have later developments in math or science undone any of his metaphors or arguments?

A wonderful book; a marvelous teacher. The text invites rereading.

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